fiftyrides

Fifty Rides in Fifty Weeks

Dusting Off

Dust it Off

Sun beats down, baking the ground. The dirt road is bunched like a washboard, rattling the bike beneath me and the teeth inside my head. On the far horizon, the white salt residue of a dried lakebed ripples in the heat waves, curling in the distance like wisps of smoke.

I’m riding across the Carrizo Plain, a massive expanse tucked in the coastal ranges east of San Luis Obisbo. This is the most dirt riding I’ve done with a motorcycle, around thirty miles of washboard, sand drift, gravel, and rock.

At first, I slow down as I hit the washboard, trying to find paths around it. But as I grow impatient, I get out of the saddle and stay on the throttle. And the bike starts floating across the bumps, taking the rattle better at speed than it did while rolling slowly. The back end slides out easily while turning. Gravel and sand grab the front tire, wiggling the bike.

At Soda Lake, a salt-covered puddle of nothingness, I ride through scraggly brush, down a short single track path to the whiteness. I expect a hard-packed patch to rip across like a desolate personal speedway. Then the front wheel starts washing around, the tires are sinking in, and it’s only getting deeper. The undercarriage of the bike starts plowing through the soft, powdery salt and the rear wheel starts spinning out.

Panic sets in and breathing gets heavy. Miles from any paved road, I hightail it back towards the brush and hard-packed dirt. Breathing a heavy sigh of relief, I’m happy to get back to the bone-shaking washboard road.

A few days later I’m swimming laps for the first time in years and thinking about movement. How do we swim through the water? How do we ride across the dirt? How do we ride on pavement? Different materials demand different actions. Drilling through metal is not the same as drilling through wood. And there’s a truth in that.

We learn from physical action because there is no subtext. There is a purity in motion that transcends our trivial, mortal motivations. The tires are on the ground or the bike is in a ditch. The other rider is either ahead or behind. It’s not open to interpretation. There’s no psychology, no hidden motive.

When we engage in a physical experience, whether it’s the first time or returning after a break, we dust off a bit of reality. Our perception of the world is changed because we see first-hand how things actually work. It’s not hear-say, not opinion. And that opens us up to the next experience, to the next person, reminding us to take a moment to see for ourselves just how this new situation is going to work.

Not all roads are made the same. Just because it’s bumpy, doesn’t mean you should go slow. Just because it’s flat doesn’t mean you can go fast. And this leads us away from prejudice, causes us to consider the accuracy of our perceptions. If we try enough new things, it’s impossible to stay stuck in our old ways, although we may get stuck in the middle of nowhere.

Please help print fifty copies of this blog as a book. Go to:

Ride On

Fifty Rides link lighter

Fifty Rides began as a feeling — partially forgotten scenes of sunsets and curving roads rushing back as I prepared to part with my first motorcycle. So many rides had gone by, most with good stories and personal insights. It seemed a shame they hadn’t been recorded better.

So, I challenged myself to journal fifty rides in fifty weeks.

Over the next year the Fifty Rides blog recorded my rides on motorcycles, bicycles, kitesurf boards and one train, preserving the insights and routes. But it did more than that…

Getting fifty rides was no problem. The challenge was gleaming insights worth sharing, remembering them, and taking time to synthesize them into well-written essays.That struggle forced me to be brutally honest. I couldn’t hide away personal thoughts because I needed material to finish the project. So I confronted addiction, anger, friendship, parenting, questioning the ride and myself.

People connected with that openness and told me so. The material was frightening to release, but readers — friends, family and strangers on the internet — identified with the struggles I revealed. I had tried to share my unique insights but instead was reminded how much we all have in common.

Now the goal is to print Fifty Rides as a book, delivering that honesty to new people, hopefully spurring conversation and informational exchange. While the writing touches on the technical aspects of riding, it also examines how the lessons from a physical discipline radiate out into the rest of life. In this way it is accessible not only to motorcyclists, bicyclists or kitesurfers, but to anyone that enjoys a good ride and is trying to figure this dang life situation out.

The kickstarter campaign “Fifty Rides” can be found at: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1166346450/fifty-rides

Printing the book will make it something that can be passed from rider to rider physically, not a website that someone means to read when they get a chance, but something that can be physically gifted. Perhaps they’ll find themselves alone with it at a cafe or a campsite.

So what do you say? Tuck a book in your saddlebag and let’s go on a ride.

One Last Time

DSCN6269

What did the snail say while riding the turtle?

                               Weeeeee!

Trees are breezing by while old-fashioned calliope music plays. I’m riding a wooden horse in a room that smells like an antique store, musty, dusty and loved. Looking up, giant rafters spin by and bent metal poles crank the horses up and down. My date sits side-saddle (“like a lady should,” she keeps joking) in a white, wide-brimmed hat and a lovely blue sun dress.

I’ve been on worse rides.

We walk over to Haight street in the fog and wait for the bus. And that’s when life springs an unexpected last ride.

The Last 71

The 71 Haight-Noriega comes wheezing down the street. It may seem silly, but this is kind of a big deal. After decades of service, MUNI just recently discontinued the 71 line, replacing it with the 7, 7R and 7X routes.

“Yeah, it hasn’t been programmed yet,” says the bus driver when I tell him how excited I am to be riding a 71 still.

A block later, a MUNI street technician waves and says, “Hey, you know your sign still says 71?”

“Yeah,” sighs our driver. “They need to program it. I’m done at 8 so they’ll do it then.”

It’s sad to think that I’ll never ride the 71 again. It’s odd that I’m filled with the same nostalgia for a bus route that I felt when I sold my first motorcycle. But it’s a part of my life that — though far from perfect — I’ll remember fondly, identify with. The 71 used to wake me up sometimes when I lived on 47th Ave. That was my first apartment in San Francisco and the bus ran right past it.

The 71 took me to work countless times when I bartended in the Tenderloin. I don’t buy that “Mid-Market Corridor” label they’re pushing, by the way. That shit is the Loin, the greasy guts of the city spilling out onto main street. I still remember when they switched the bus stops to the edge of Market street instead of the islands, letting us off in front of Kaplan’s Military Surplus store.

As we approach Market, I notice the route isn’t the same. The 71 used to turn left as it headed downhill, wiggling onto Page street before it crossed Market. If I was transferring to the 49 at Van Ness, I could tell when it was time to stop reading and get my gear together by the turn. It had to be a really good book for the jerking lean of the curve to go unnoticed.

Today the bus just goes straight down Haight. There’s also no homeless dogs slobbering on my shoes, no hustlers running three-card monte scams either. It’s just not the same. The Last 71 gets us downtown faster than usual, though. I guess it really is the 7 now. This leaves time to ride the carousel at the Yerba Buena Center before it closes.

This gleaming white carousel spins faster and has some cool animals, including a blue griffon on the front of a cart that I insist on riding. Instead of the lush vegetation of Golden Gate Park, the scenery outside is glass high-rises and a tech dude filming a podcast. Though it’s housed in a fancy, new steel building, this merry-go-round is actually quite old. Built in Rhode Island in 1906, it moved from various west coast locations, being miraculously spared from fire several times.

DSCN6280

Next we ride the F line out to Pier 39 for the third and final spin of the day. This carousel is a two-story plastic monstrosity set in the middle of a tourist trap. But it does have scenes of San Francisco painted on its fancy side. And it does have a panda on the top level. It also wins for music, playing a dramatic score reminiscent of a Star Wars fight scene. Most harrowing merry-go-round ever.

As we discuss our fantastic, three-out-of-three carousel day, the Last 71 keeps coming up. Maybe its the sentimentality, but that bus trip actually felt like a ride. It stirs that sense of life and — like I’ve said before — you just know when you’ve been on a ride.

Maybe a ride is something we decide for ourselves. A carousel ride isn’t really that spectacular when you think about it. You go in a circle a few times. If you’re on one of the moving animals, you go up and down a bit. But so what? Why is it so fun and memorable? Is it the pretty little scenes painted on the side? Is it the lights and sparkles? Or is it a ride simply because we choose to enjoy it?

We let a merry-go-round become more than the sum of its parts. Our imagination turns a wooden horse into a trusty steed, a few circles into an adventure. It helps to have good company, too, someone that laughs, makes funny faces and sits side-saddle — or backwards! When we choose to open our hearts and minds to the fun of it all, it’s then that we really get to go for a ride.

There were little moments I opened up like that on the 71 over the years and they come rushing back. Cold and hungry, returning home with friends after a day in the park. Disgusted by smelly homeless feet, looking away to find an hilariously bad tattoo (yeah sure, dude, it says “LA #1” if you hold your arm up, but most of the time, that shit’s just upside-down). Tired after a day’s work but watching the city breeze by, seeing what wacky weirdos wash in the door. There was always a choice between being stuck on a bus or being on a bus ride. I can see that now — now that the route is gone, now that I can’t take that ride again.

It’s like they say, we just don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone. But we keep getting new chances, new choices. Wherever you’re going, whatever you’re doing, go for a ride.

Wave of the Future, Dude.

Electric Bike Cropped

We’re crossing 16th street on De Haro, heading up Protrero Hill when I twist the throttle a little more. Is it really a throttle? I guess it’s a potentiometer, really, since it’s not actually controlling any apertures. Either way, suddenly I’m moving much faster than I had expected. Before I know it, I’m jamming on the brakes to avoid colliding with the other test riders. Welcome to the world of electric motorcycles. Yee-ha.

We stop at the top of the hill and the ride-leader from SF Moto asks if I’d like to switch bikes. I really want to move onto the sportier Zero-SR, with its ridiculous torque, but my recent scare makes me trepidacious. In a decision I’ll regret later, I stay on the Zero S.

We ride back down the hill and cross through the tech-bubble turnaround near Zinga and take Townsend towards the ballpark. Turning right onto King Street, entering the highway, I twist the potentiometer again and feel the back end wash out, losing traction on the crosswalk paint. Yee-hah.

The bike has no trouble getting going on the freeway. If anything I’m just a little disoriented by not having to shift and considering resetting my grip to keep twisting the throttle. It might be nice to have a shifter paddle that control the sensitivity range of the “throttle.” I’m about to see just how far the thing really goes — planning to weave around a pickup truck — when out ride leader signals our exit onto Mariposa. This is only a test ride, after all.

Next to the UCSF Mission Bay campus, we switch bikes. As we pull over next to the curb, a medical worker in scrubs says, “Hey guys, I don’t think those are parking spots.”

“We’re just switching bikes,” I explain. But what I wish I’d said is: “I’m not sure those are really clothes.” Seriously: what’s the deal with folks wearing scrubs out on the street? How is that sanitary? Oh, well, one more thing I may never understand about health care…

Anyway, now I’m on the DS, Zero’s answer to the on-road-off-road adventure bike. I set it to Eco mode at first, just to explore the range of the bike. As we take off at the next light it feels incredibly sluggish, about as slow as the Nighthawk 250 I teach on, maybe slower. I set it back to Sport mode at the next light. As we take off again, it happily gets out of its own way, even displaying some snappy git-up-an-go.

Turning on the DS feels more forgiving than the Zero S. With more of a sport-bike style, the S dips immediately at the beginning of a turn, relaxing as the lean increases. The taller DS responds more evenly, without the aggressive initial dip, it eases into turns with more continuity. If I was going to commute or go camping, I would definitely choose the DS.

Just a few blocks later, we trade again and I get a crack at the SR, Zero’s top of the line. While all of the bikes have been fun, this is the one that hovers in my mind the same way a samurai would covet a priceless sword. I can see it in the garage, imagine the heads I could cut with its ridiculous, one hundred pounds of torque, beating almost anything off the line.

“I should at least find out what the monthly payments would be,” I think, knowing full well that I can’t afford it. But a man can dream…

We ride down Bryant, past Sports Basement and I thwack the throttle a few times, pulling on the bars and leaning back. Up comes the front tire, not quite as easily as a KTM Duke, but more readily than my Yamaha R6. I see a small loading ramp set on a curb and ponder riding the bike up it and bumping down the curve. At our current speed, it would be an impressive maneuver, and the SR is nimble enough that I have no doubt of its possibility. But this is a loaner bike and the guy leading the ride has been real nice… so I keep it on the road. Woo, responsibility.

When we had first pulled away from SF Moto, I had a moment of skepticism. The bikes were eerily quiet and the initial power delivery is reminiscent of a bumper car — that soft hum and click of the electricity snapping through the motor, pushing forward, seemingly detached from the throttle until you really start moving. I’d laughed to myself how future motorcycle memoirs will have to swap “And away we roared” for “And away we swished.”

The quiet motor is kind of a double edged sword: you can hear a lot more around you, but there’s no auditory reminder that you’re accelerating.

But the Zero SR is a bumper car with ball-balls, baby. It handles as easily as my small cruiser, delivers power like my race bike and has fewer emissions than my toaster. The only downside is top-speed and range (and a $20,000 price tag). But the casual rider will rarely push those limits. Lot’s of folks talk a big came, but when you get right down to it, most people aren’t riding more than 100 miles in a day nor exceeding 100 mph everyday.

Some of you are still shaking your heads, saying “You can ride an electric bike. I’m sticking with gasoline.”

That’s fine for now — so will I. But the statistics say that we’ll all be using electric vehicles within the near future.

Additionally, I’m for it on a personal level. Soot from the busy street I live on collects on our building like fine black snow. When I roll down my car window, it bunches up in lines like dark, sticky sand. I can’t wait to see electric vehicles displace our cancerous, air polluting standard. Will I miss our loud, brapping, gas-rockets? Hell yeah I will. I’ll probably even cry about it at some point (I’m not kidding: I will literally probably have an emotional break down when I have to throw out a random carburetor jet I find at the bottom of my box of cassette tapes, years after internal combustion is outlawed on public streets — if I’m lucky to live that long). But I’m not going to fight the facts of what we’re doing to the environment. Instead I’m going to welcome the new toys.

And I hope to see if I can’t use a hundred pounds of torque to rip a rear wheel clean off a cheap bike by pegging the potentiometer in a muddy bog after I’ve flipped a bike. Yee-ha.

We can fear the new changes. We can lament how things should or used to be. Or we can do what we can, with what we have, where we are.

Can’t stop riding, so we gotta keep going…

A Wake Up and a Knee Down

Hair Pin Raceway turned

“Cinderella story, out of nowhere, former greenskeeper, now about to become the Masters champion. It looks like a mirac- it’s in the hole! It’s in the hole!” -Carl, the greenskeeper from Caddyshack

“If you think you know what the hell is going on, you’re probably full of shit.” -Robert Anton Wilson

It’s a Goldilocks day at Thunderhill Raceway in Willows, CA — not too hot, not too cold, just a little overcast. The C group riders of this Precision Trackday event are being guided slowly by an instructor, pacing out the optimum line through the turns. And I think I’ve got it figured out…

An hour later we’ve been turned loose to run the course and I’m passing an instructor on the back straight. Now turn 14 is coming in hot. Too hot. Way too hot! I grab a fistful of brakes but it’s too late. The bike passes between the cones and leaves the course. But there’s plenty of pavement left and the bike and I are both fine, still rolling slowly. I look back over my right shoulder and re-enter the track, falling in behind the instructor I just passed.

“Maybe I don’t got this…”

Back we go through turns One and Two. I’m keeping up, but they keep saying this is a trackday, not a raceday, so maybe it’s not about keeping up. Isn’t it always about that a little bit, though? Maybe today is really about drawing the right line, the same way little leaguers practice bunt plays instead of hitting homeruns. You can’t win the World Series everyday, and considering this is my first day on the track, my MotoGP delusions are beginning to waft away.

At turn Three, the instructor pulls away a bit. The downhill camber is still throwing me. Turn Four is a forgiving left that leads into the blind, hill-climbing, pinched curve that is turn Five. Ha, ha! On turn Five I know I’ve got a better line — or do I just think I do? Either way, I can’t wait to try it out. Turn Six he pulls away again, going through faster than I thought possible. Seven is barely a turn unless you set up for it wrong. He gets turn Eight better then me but at the top of Nine I’m starting to catch back up. On Ten we run into a group that’s going slower than we are, which is simultaneously frustrating and relieving, giving me a moment to loosen up and relax.

Turn Eleven is the hardest turn for me to read. I follow his line through the sharp, off-camber left, but  I still don’t get it. It will take me all day to get a good feel for it and I’ll still only pull a good line about half the time. On turn Twelve, he mows over the warning stripes like a linebacker and I follow. Turn Thirteen is another barely-existent turn that merely pushes you towards the right side of the track as you blast past it. We head down the straightaway, taking its full length to set up for the next curve and braking under the bridge. Turn Fourteen looms ominously, a vague, flat hairpin of cones and far-away grass, a blurry ghost-curve, unsettling me.

But as I pull his line, it occurs to me that I might just get a knee down on this curve before the day is through.

Faster bikes blast past us on the straight away. The checkered flag waves as we get back to turn One, signaling the end of the session.

In the clubhouse after lunch, we discuss the track. We talk about optimal lines, when to brake, where to look, where not to look. I’m surrounded by sufferers of the same affliction, folks that look at a curve and see a challenge. Folks that would draw a line around their pancakes with a sausage dipped in syrup. Folks to whom a hairpin has less to do with looks than it does with where you’re looking.

During the second afternoon session, one of the instructors follows me around the course, examining my form. I’m keeping up with other C group riders, but just barely. I’m pulling nice lines, but going slower than others, and confused by my disadvantage. I trying to push it harder, but not sure how to do it. Back in the paddock, the instructor points out how I brake hard approaching turns, but let off completely before actually entering the turn. “We need to fix that,” he says.

For quite some time, I’ve been approaching turns without using the brakes at all, regulating my speed entirely by engine braking alone. This is a safe way to navigate a turn, but it’s not the fastest. The speeds on the track are forcing me to get on the brakes, but I’ve been doing it wrong. My techniques has been letting pressure off the front tire, reducing the amount of traction I have as I enter the turn. I’ve heard and read about trail braking — trailing off the brakes while entering a turn, forcing the front end into the pavement, maximizing surface area — but I’d never really applied it. Maybe I’ve been too cautious, overly prudent. Maybe I’ve just been scared.

“I know it can be scary, especially going into turn Ten,” says the instructor. “But try to do less braking for longer.”

On the next session, I try it out, using a lighter touch, downshifting and rev-matching the engine and trailing off the brakes as I get on the throttle, keeping the front end pressed against the ground as I look through my turn. And it clicks! The front end feels more connected, sturdier, less shrouded in mystery. And I feel safer experimenting with it here, surrounded by similarly-sick turn-junkies, not all alone on some backroad or cliffside highway above the ocean.

I’d guess I’m not the first would-be hot-shot at his inaugural trackday to find out that things aren’t as simple as once presumed. In the weeks leading up, I’d fantasized of being moved up to B group or even A group once they saw my riding. In my most delusional moments I imagined setting some track record, purely on accident. Cute.

But — presumably better than finding out I was Marc Marquez’s long-lost cousin — I got humbled, I learned and I improved. Feeling my riding grow was way more fulfilling than discovering I was some hidden savant. We all have Cinderella dreams, but it’s better to get woken up and discover that you’re actually putting in the work to become the person you want to be.

As the day goes on, I keep improving. By the second-to-last last session, I’m passing more than I’m getting passed, pulling strong lines through every curve. Turn 14 no longer terrifies me, and I’m getting closer to getting a knee down. As the last session rolls around, other riders are calling it a day, leaving the track wide open. It feels like my chance to get that knee against the pavement.

Turn 14 is coming in hot. But not too hot. I jam on the brakes under the bridge, feeling the front-end shudder as the shocks compress and expand. Trailing off the brakes, I look hard up through the turn and commit. I feel my right knee touch down and I tense up, straightening out. On the next lap, I touch down again, staying looser. On my last chance, the third time is the charm and as I touch down I ease into it, playing around with pressure against the road. It’s an entirely new sensation. I’m no knee-dragging savant, but I can’t wait to get humbled, learn and improve some more.

So I got that going for me, which is nice.

If you enjoy riding and can afford it, I can’t recommend a trackday enough. Special thanks to the Precision Trackday crew for an awesome day.

The Lighthouse and the Lightbulb

Physics of a sharp turnI’m sitting at home with my legs up and ice on my knees. South Park is on the TV and there’s a Lagunitas Daytime Ale on the couch next to me, supported by my copy of David Macaulay’s “The Way Things Work.” Life is pretty good.

We just got back from the Point Reyes Lighthouse and, though it’s trite to say, it was an epic ride. 136 miles of twisting coastal roads that resulted in a real lightbulb moment for my sportbike riding.

The Light house itself

The lighthouse is a unique piece of history perched out on the edge of the Pacific. Crafted in 1870, the ornate, rotating fresnel lens (pronounced “frennal”) is a glimmering view into a world gone by. The cliffside buildings also house of a collection of maritime warning devices. The light remained the same until recently, but the fog horns have changed over the decades. The first whistle was steam-powered, demanding 140 lbs of coal be shovel into a boiler every hour — eight tons a year.

The Lighthouse Mechanism

The Coast Guard attendants spent endless hours scrubbing soot off of the intricate clockwork mechanisms. When not doing that, they were sanding away rust and painting the cast iron buildings. The park ranger giving the history lesson today didn’t mention how much alcohol the attendants consumed, but I’d guess it was the second most important commodity after coal.

On the way back from the lighthouse, my friend hooked up his gopro and had me ride in front. It provided the motivation to ride aggressively. I imagined him saying, “Get ill, dude!” or “Get after it!” So I was pushing things, trying intently to hold my lines, leaning hard around blind turns.

Keep in mind that the lighthouse road is pretty crap. Really: it’s beautiful and bumpy as hell. Pot holes that could swallow a Volkswagon speckle a ribbon of asphalt that winds between rolling hills, passing estuaries, marshes and vast green fields. It sweeps down into cattle farms and climbs suddenly around craggy protrusions of sand stone.

Lighthouse Road

The road conditions forced me to get my butt up off the seat, just like downhill mountain biking. Suddenly I was whipping the bike around with much more authority, in control like never before. I had been riding in the saddle waaaaay too much. Now that I was floating over the bumps, using my legs as shock absorbers, I could really feel the bike on a different level.

Once we got onto the more forgiving pavement of Highway One, things kept clicking. I found I had been bunching against the tank too much and eased myself back, putting a longer bend into my knees. I’ve done plenty of out-of-the-saddle riding before, but the Yamaha R6 required the most aggressive posture and technique I’ve experienced yet. Basically, you get on all fours, slam the bike towards the ground while entering the turn, then use the throttle to catch yourself, using momentum to pull the bike back towards standing. Between pressure on the pegs, handlebar and throttle there’s a balance that lets the bike rip through turns like a sawblade rollercoaster.

The amount of actual lean that the bike has is kind of ridiculous. After feeling the turns in this new way, lowsiding stopped being a concern. All that was really important was whether I was drifting to the road’s edge and whether the bike was scraping the ground (didn’t experience any of the latter). I was pushing my angle of lean farther than ever before and it felt great.

All bikes, no matter how large or small have an range of lean at which they pretty much stay upright. After a certain point — the tipping point — gravity starts winning the fight. At complete rest, when the bike isn’t moving at all, a little motion either way makes the difference in keeping the rubber side down. (Try keeping both feet on the pegs at complete stop. If you can go longer than three seconds, you might want to considering quitting your day job and start riding full time.) But as speed increases, gravity takes second place to the bike’s forward momentum. It’s too preoccupied with moving ahead to fall towards the ground. As we go faster, the possible angle of lean becomes less dependent on gravity and is dictated much more by traction.

Anyway, an aggressive turn is a delicate dance between traction, gravity and forward momentum. Really good racers are actually dealing with slipping traction, which just blows my mind, considering the forces I just felt. Accelerating hard out of a turn, experiencing G-pull while leaned so far that I was looking side-ways at the road was a hellova rush — more like a rope swing than a bike.

It’s one thing to understand the physics of an aggressive turn, how opposing forces carve a vector into an invisible, three-dimensional graph. It’s another thing to climb inside that equation and get shot out of an uphill right-hand turn on a seaside road, screaming inside your helmet.

Cue the French Horns

IMG_20150427_134036

The Giants are Losing on the television at Rancho Nicasio while the Tom Finch Trio plays soothing, melodic, jam rock. The aunts and uncles of a birthday girl dance near an unused piano. After riding down Lucas Valley Road in the dark, I’m just happy to be alive.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep…but also full of deer and cops and drunks. Oh my. And there’s also the new rear tire I’m still scrubbing in to consider. Riders are always supposed to stay loose, but that can be hard when you’re reasonably fearful for your life.

It’s been awhile since I did any night riding in a deer-filled area. The last time was in Texas, riding highway 71 into Austin after sundown. Another time that comes to mind was a mountainous region of I40 approaching Flagstaff, if I recall correctly. At first there were deer warning signs. Next there were even bigger signs with speed warnings. Finally there was a flashing billboard that basically read: “Seriously you assholes. Lots of of fucking deer. Slow the hell down. We’re tired of cleaning up carcases.” (I’m paraphrasing…)

Another moment of rational fear, also on I40, was when I broke down near the Arizona-New Mexico border in a monsoon. I limped back towards the last gas station I’d passed, riding the wrong way on the shoulder until I got a clear shot at crossing a patch of median that didn’t look too muddy. I can still see my front tire pulling back onto the pavement, feel the swell of joy and relief at succeeding. There’s also a triumphant, orchestral flourish of horns and timpani’s in my mind, but, well, that’s just wishful, ornamental thinking. (Or is it? Wasn’t music like that born from emotion…)

When you make it through situations like that, the relief you feel at your destination is as good as anything. It makes you wanna cry. It’s like being five years old again and getting separated from your parents in a crowd. The rush of emotion when you reconnect puts you at ease, but also reinforces how scared you just were, why it matters, how fragile and lucky to be alive we all are.

I’ve experienced a similar emotion after almost crashing, when the bike started to skid into a death wobble on a deserted back road. I did everything I could and somehow it worked and I found myself in one piece, still on the bike instead of broken in a ditch. I pulled over to the side of the road, turned the engine off and removed my helmet. Feeling very small in a mystical world, I stared out at distant horizon, searching for a sign that I was really alive. I can still feel the wind on my cheek, see the blue sky, smell the tree sap and dust of the forest.

Those moments stay with you. The moments of intense fear don’t ingrain themselves as deeply as the moment you realize you’ve survived. That stuff sticks with you like a beard full of bubble gum. Maybe it’s a survival mechanism, maybe it’s common sense. There’s just nothing that makes you as happy to be alive as almost being dead.

Focus On What You Want

Kinfe Ship Cropped

My friend, who just got his permit, and I went on a ride again. I suggested that he take the lead this time so that I could focus on my relaxed riding and watch his form to give him pointers. We took more or less the same route as our last ride but we ended up trading off leading so that I could show him the way.

When we got to the bottom of Guadalupe Canyon Parkway again, I asked him where he wanted to go next. “I was thinking we could go back up the hill,” he said. “And then turn around and come right back here.”

That really put a smile on my face. There was nothing I’d rather do more. Hitting the same run a few times in a row is the best, whether it’s snowboarding, biking or kiting. Taking the same curves over and over lets you build a muscle memory of your line, frees you up to enjoy the ride.  It was great to see him take an interest in running back and forth across the same patch.

Even though he had been leading, on the last big downhill I had opened it up and passed him. So he recommended that I go first. On the final uphill left-hander, I got my eyes up and really loosened up on the bars. The bike seemed to melt away and it felt more like climbing the mast of a sail boat — I was leaned over, but didn’t feel like I would fall. With my eyes up, the little wobbles of the bike seemed less significant. The resistance of the tires against the asphalt felt less likely to slip and more like the keel of a ship or even a giant blade stuck into the ground.

We turned around and headed back towards the west again. On the big, sweeping downhill, I really opened it up. It was exhilarating. At the stop sign at the bottom of the hill, my friend pulled up looking a tad tense and said, “Ok, so, I just nearly crashed back there.”

“Let’s pull over in the shade here and talk about it.” Under the fir trees, we took off our helmets and got off the bikes. It can be hard to remember what happened in a near tumble, so it’s good to take a moment to examine what we can. I felt bad that I had pushed it so fast, he had probably tried to keep up, if only subconsciously.

As we had come down the wide left, he was going about as fast as he’d ever gone. He felt he was leaned into the turn as far as he could  but the edge of the road was getting closer, scaring him. He rolled off the throttle, but it still felt too fast and the edge was still getting closer. He stayed off the brakes, thank god, and realized he was looking where he was afraid of crashing. So, as he downshifted, he looked where he wanted to go.

And it worked.

Later, as we rode past Baker Beach, I could feel my eyes pulling to the places I was afraid of…the edge of the road, the cliff to the sea. As I focused harder on the curve, I could feel the knife-ship again, the bumps of the road became irrelevant, the goal clearer, the turn easier.

It’s ok to be afraid. It’s healthy. But don’t focus on what you’re afraid of. Just keep looking up — just like rock climbing, just like life. We don’t get where we want to be by worrying about failure, we do it by focusing on success.

Not Worth It

IMG_20150426_122724

It’s a friend’s birthday party and they’re outside by the boats and the pinata debris.  I’m at the bar, waiting to order another Corona, when one of the waitresses runs in and says, “They’re fighting out there!”

The barback rushes outside and I follow, finding the biggest guy from our group being restrained. One of the girls is holding her swelling eyebrow. Another guy I’ve never seen before is being held back by strangers. How did this happen? How long had I been waiting to order? Two minutes?

“Little bitch!” Yells the new guy.

“Why don’t you come on to the public property here and say that?” Retorts our friend.

I help calm things down, another rotating referee pushing the boxers to their corners. I’m struck by how tall our friend actually is — he’s usually so docile. Trying to push him back, I’m craning my neck to see his enraged face, talking him out of steamrolling this interloper, who — it’s becoming clear — is really quite drunk, sluring his words and swaying around.

Staff from the bar take the inebriate by the elbows and guide him to the front exit. Our large friend is taken by his girlfriend and they go slowly down the grassy garden path of the public shoreline, presumably to a cab.

I talk to bystanders and members of our group, getting the skinny on how the fight started. The drunk-ass had come over and imposed himself on the birthday party. Our big friend told him to get away — probably not very nicely. Drunk-ass suddenly slapped our friend and then threw a wild punch that accidentally clocked a lady in the eyebrow.

Dumb.

As I’m leaving, the drunkard is still trying to get back into the bar.

I warm up the bike and roll over to one of the security guards. Stopping, I say: “Hey man, tell me to use some self-control right now.”

“What’s up?” he replies.

“That’s the dude that started a fight with my friend,” I say, pointing at dopey. “And it’s got me wanting to do some stupid shit.”

The security guard smiles and says, “Hey man, just ride your bike.”

That, I can do.

It’s a ride now, a carrot to pull this stubborn donkey away from the helmeted head-butt the instigator so richly deserves. I give him the stink eye as I roll past, but he’s too busy futilely attempting to blend in with the entrance line to notice.

As I pull onto the street, I feel the adrenaline making my left leg shake, the same way it does when I’ve taken a corner too hot. I remember the time I was riding out to Boonville and miss-read an uphill right that left me hugging the double-yellow and staring towards a downhill-moving produce truck. I corrected and rode on unscathed, but my left leg did an uncontrollable jackhammer impression for the next few miles. A little bit of adrenaline is a good thing. But a lot of it blinds you with rage and sets your muscles on a hair trigger.

We’ve examined in previous posts how there’s a thin line between being assertive and being a jerk. Too much rage will rob you of your ability to tell the difference. I’m proud of my friend for letting us talk him down. He could have pushed us aside and bull-dozed that guy. But, though the drunk seemed to deserve a pounding (or head-butt from me), my big friend didn’t deserve the consequences that would follow. Just like in the mobster movies when they say, “Tony! Tony! He’s not worth it!”

I certainly wasn’t about to trade a sunny afternoon motorbike ride through the hills of San Francisco for a conversation with a police officer. The sloppy slapper at the front entrance would get what was coming to him sooner or later. Or maybe not. Either way: fuck him — not worth my time.

The bike rolls through the the City and the world flows by like paper in the wind, pulling the rage away in layers that land next to the trash on the roadside. As I get to Haight street, I’m calm and collected again. I stop and talk with two friends outside of Aub Zam Zam, smiling, then meet up with folks at Murios. I get a hug from two gorgeous blondes that buy me a beer and give me a goat cheese BLT sandwich.

“I made the right choice,” I think, laughing to myself…

The back of the drunk’s shirt read: “Drink like you mean it!”

77.01

First Drag foot up

There’s a guy in a red polo shirt and radio headphones standing in front of a line of bikes. The jitters are creeping up. “Stay calm, stay calm,” I think, but I’m definitely not calm. People are watching, engines are roaring and I’m about to try going as fast as I can — at least it’s just in a straight line.

“The gas is on. The gas is on,” I tell myself as the mind runs over every checklist point again and again.

Three of us had ridden up earlier that day. Confused by the racing requirements, I’d worn a full leather suit and looked a little over dressed on my small cruiser. To get the best performance out of my little bike, I’d tightened and greased my chain, topped off the oil and checked my tire pressure. I’d removed the ammo-box-saddlebag from the side and purposefully ran low on gas during the ride up. After fueling up at the racetrack with about half a gallon of 100-octane racing fuel, I was ready to go. I just needed to know how to get in line. “Can you just lanesplit to the front?” Asks one of our group.

Looking at a line of cars, I ride over to a primer grey station wagon that was covered in stickers and asked  what the deal was.

“Well, this is technical, where they check us out,” says the driver. “It’s kind of a cluster fuck. It’s supposed to be one line but there’s too many of us. So, you know, wherever…”

Turns out the lanesplitting idea was more or less correct. I’m still waiting behind the station wagon when a group of bikes slips past. Once I get a little closer, the race tech waves me in with the other two-wheelers and gives me a form to fill out. The inspection consists of checking for a Snell sticker on my helmet and making sure the motorcycle has two wheels. After almost no talking, he takes out a white grease marker, draws the number 79 on my headlight and walks away.

Pulling around into the paddock, there are several lines of cars. I pull in behind the group of bikes. It’s mostly sportbikes and a few Harley’s. Amongst them: a Bandit, a GSX R, a CBR F4, a Harley Dyna Lowrider, and a souped-up Harley Sportser with a nylon strap holding down its front suspension.

My bike has less horsepower than anyone else. But at least I have more teeth than most…

I talk with the Dyna owner about what time he hopes to pull. Turns out my cute little dreams of hitting a hundred were pretty far-fetched. I had figured that if I could get to 50 mph on a single city block, I should be able to pull a bill in the quarter mile (the average reader will think, “Seems reasonable,” while the gear-heads are laughing). Telling the Dyna rider my aspirations, he points to the GSX R and says, “I don’t know man, he barely breaks a hundred.”

Checking out the different bikes, I walk up to the track staff standing in front of our group.

“Hey, sorry to bug you, but it’s my first time here,” I say. “How’s this work?”

“Well,” says an elderly and obviously bothered man. “You’ve got your different groups, there’s the sport, the uh, comp rods, the gear jammers — that’s the stick-shift cars — and the high-schoolers who’ll race the highway patrols.”

“Ok, but, I mean, when will we go?” I reply, pointing to the group of bikers.

“Hmm. Not sure,” he said. “But first, do you know what type of christmas tree you’ll be on?”

“Is this guy fucking with me?” I think (again, seems reasonable but the gear-heads are laughing). “Perhaps it’s some photo of every dragster they put together each December.” I imagine grainy photos glued to red construction paper, held to a large fake tree by pipe cleaners. “Nice.” But all I say in response is, “Nope.”

“See,” he says, pointing to the row of lights by two revving hotrods about to tear ass down the strip. “Well, it doesn’t help for you to watch this group because the lights are different for motorcycles. But, you see how there are two lights up top? That’s for positioning. You’ll see it when you get up there.

“With the cars, there are three yellows and then the green, see? But the motorcycles it’s just: yellow then go. All three yellow light up, then the green one.”

A few minutes later and we’re suited back up and the lights are blinking for motorcycles. “Stay calm,” I tell myself. “The gas is on.” I watch for the single yellow and then the green and… And then the guy on the Sportster drpps his bike. “Whew,” I think. “That really took the pressure off. I won’t be the biggest jerk out here today…probably.”

The 2005 Dyna Lowrider gets paired up against my 1987 Honda Rebel 450. We pull up to the line. First one positioning light comes on, then the next. A race attendant slaps down my visor. The Dyna pulls up and the positioning lights are all lit.

Yellows…Green!!!

The throttle twists. I see him fade back for a moment. Time to shift. Where’s the lever?! Looking…Looking down?! Ok, right, foot in place now. He’s still just to the left. I’ve got him! Tuck! Tuck! Shift! Twist! Throttle! The speedometer wobbles, springing around 80 as the wind screams and green hills streak by. He pulls away…

The race is over. We engine-brake up the hill and curve past the red and white striping of the curving race track. I’m actually on the same asphalt I once watched the superbike racers wheely down the hill. I lean hard, scraping a foot pet as I take the right turn and we zoom back down towards the paddock.

“All right, both of yah!” yells the lady in the little booth behind the track where we stop to get out times. “The speed limit on the return road is FIFTEEN!”

“Sorry,” I say as she hands over the print outs of our times. “Nobody told me anything. It’s my first time.” And then to the guy on the Harley, I ask: “Did you know?”

He just sort of grunts, passes over my time slip and rides away. I stuff the print-out into my glove as she waves an oversize fly swatter at me in warning, smiling, saying, “Do you see this?”

Riding back towards the line, the freedom of release after the nervous concentration washes over like a cool breeze. There hadn’t been time for much thought, it was just act, act, act. Looking back, I’m not even sure what had happened, what I had done. Had I really turned the throttle all the way? Why wouldn’t I have? Like an accident, only a few details remain.

When things move quick, we only get a couple memories. But sometimes we get a second try.

I let my right leg swing loose while I roll back to the line up…

Photo above by Jonathan Costello

Drag Race Times

Left: 2005 Harley Dyna Lowrider.  Right: 1987 Honda Rebel 450