Fear.


Motorcycle accident, Balham. By Drew Leavy. License

You have to learn from the mistakes of others. You won’t live long enough to make them all yourself.

(Unattributed)

When you think of riding, the elephant in the room – or if you prefer, the SUV at the intersection – is the prospect of getting killed, or seriously injured. Motorcycles are dangerous, so the received wisdom goes.

Well, in some cases, definitely. You can go on Wikipedia and discover that “Motorcycle riders aged below 40 are 36 times more likely to be killed than other vehicle operators of the same age.”(“Motorcycle safety,” 2016). You can find all sorts of information, anecdotal and peer-reviewed, that might persuade you to not even look at a bike, for fear you may spontaneously self-combust.

I didn’t want to turn this post into a statistical dive, mostly because I find that too hard, and I’m lazy, and honestly, it’s been done to death by more qualified people. Have a look around the work for yourself: The reality is, there’s a lot you can do to help your dice rolls, and most of it is training and attitude. Every ride is a lesson. The biggest risk, assuming you are appropriately protected and aren’t riding like a twat, is still other road users.

IMG_2711, by Killbox. License

Like most things in life, you can go a long way to helping yourself with the right approach.

If you spend any time on YouTube “researching” (looking at crash videos, like some knobber totalling his GSXR on Mulholland Drive) there’s a chance you will scare yourself away from riding. I watched – and of course cannot find it now – a video wherein the narrator strongly advised not looking at crash videos for exactly this reason. Likewise, the Reddit board /r/motorcycles tends to have a notable focus on accidents. People like the drama.

I take a different point of view. Look at them, don’t shy away from it, because it could be you. Try to understand what happened. Recognise and accept that it can happen. Knowledge and training the rational part of your mind can help keep the anxiety reflex – which is dangerous – away. It surprises me even now how, in times of stress, much my body tries to fight me when on the bike. Nearly all accidents contain useful information that will help the rider build a good mental picture on the street. Also note that in a large number of cases the rider makes a full recovery. Here’s a classic example, similar bike to mine:


If you’re new to riding, you’ll probably wonder how on earth such a thing happens. Ride a few thousand miles, and you’ll understand exactly how it happens.

The other side to this is, we see what we want to. For all those Mulholland Drive bike crashes, there are plenty of cars filmed doing worse in exactly the same place. You have probably known more people that were killed in cars than on bikes.

you start with a bag full of luck and an empty bag of experience. The trick is to fill the bag of experience before you empty the bag of luck.

(Unattributed)

This is one of the truest things I’ve read about riding. I wish I knew where it came from; it appears to have originated in Aviation; another pursuit terribly unforgiving of errors. You will have close calls when you start out. As a novice, you are so occupied with simply controlling the bike that situational awareness is very poor. You won’t signal, you won’t cancel signals (you will usually leave them blinking for about 38 hours), you won’t do enough shoulder checks. You’ll stall on hills, you’ll nearly run wide at stupidly low speed a few times. You’ll nearly run wide at stupidly high speeds a few times.

For all that, and well beyond the fear, it’s like nothing else. Concentration and relaxation doesn’t come naturally to me. On a bike I feel completely relaxed; it is practically therapy. YouTuber TnP puts it well:

You ride motorcycles? Seriously? I mean if you want to live, if you like living, why would you ever get on a motorcycle?

Has anyone every said that to you? have you seen that attitude come up in conversation with family, friends, for that matter, strangers?

Yeah, me too.

I have lots of responses, but here’s the core of it: If you want to live, if you like living, why would you not get on a motorcycle?

(nutnfancy, 2014)

Hell yeah.

Where Do You Want To Go?

After spending amounts of time researching bikes that neared the definition obsession (a recurring theme…), I stepped back to think about what I was doing. I was forty-one in 2015; why did I feel the need to get a motorbike? Was this an early midlife crisis?

Midlife Crisis...
Me IRL

Possibly. The fact I was in my forties and taking up riding was not unusual; in fact it’s in line with a trend that was identified in 2003 – more people of my age were buying motorcycles (“Table 4 – Motorcycle Owners by Age in the United States for Selected Years, 1985-2003,” 2009). Of course that isn’t particularly meaningful, and merely gives credence to the idea I was mere weeks away from buying a sportscar and shagging my secretary.

Getting back to the point, back in the day I used to go to a friends farmhouse to ride one of his many dirtbikes around all day. I liked riding in the family car and being driven about along rural country roads by my dad, just for the sheer enjoyment of it. I’d been very into bicycles when I was younger, and this was something I’d definitely lost with over two decades of city living. It never occurred to me this isn’t an interest everyone shares, and I’ve met a few people that don’t get it at all. It’s summarised better by the YouTube personality TNP (nutnfancy, 2015):

…They look at driving as a burden.
…Myself, I am a pilot by nature, that’s the way I was born. I love piloting jets, I like piloting cars, I like piloting motorcycles.

I’d been in the USA for three years and lived a short walk from work; I hadn’t even bothered converting my UK license; it was one of those things to do, among a great many. Now that I had moved out of town and had a reason to drive again, I got a taste for it. This was a also a new place and outside of the city, I hardly knew it. I felt very much like something old had woken in me.

Driving around in the car again, on my own, I’d been struck by how wasteful it seemed. Not unlike the author, It was big, expensive to run, and not getting any younger. A bike fitted that desire for individuality and immediacy to the environment that a car could give you only on the right day.

My wife, for her part, was extremely supportive from the word go. She considered me careful and responsible. I had to consider I’d possibly fooled her in this respect, but I loved her vote of confidence. Either that, or she possibly wanted me dead.

There was nothing stopping me, was there?

An Informed Choice. Maybe.

If was to get into motorcycles, I thought I wanted something small and light, without a huge amount of power. Something – conventional wisdom says – I would not hurt myself with. I wasn’t twenty-one anymore and didn’t want some crotch-rocket to set my remaining few hairs on fire. No, That desire would actually – and rather unexpectedly – come later. Some Google-fu turned up the Ninja 300 straight away: New as of 2013, 300cc, and an all-new platform built on top of the wildly successful but now discontinued Ninja 250R. At this point I’d never considered a secondhand bike. This is considered unwise in motorbike lore, the reasoning being you will lose money on a new bike, and will surely damage it, being a new rider. The first is definitely true, and it didn’t bother me as much as it should, as I’ve never been that sensible with money. The second isn’t necessarily true at all, even if it sounds prudent. There was also a matter of practicality – I knew fuck all about motorcycles, I would therefore not be able to meaningfully inspect a potential purchase, or ride it home. None of these problems were intractable, but they were sufficient to raise the volume of my inner desire for something new and shiny.

I wasn’t sure why I was drawn to Kawasaki; somewhere in my head was a warm feeling toward the brand, but I don’t know where that came from. Maybe it was my initial sighting of the 250R, but I definitely liked the Ninjette. Likewise I liked sport bikes, despite the slightly chavvy image. I think I have to admit that perhaps there’s a smidge of hooligan in my otherwise pretty straight demeanour.

Choosing a motorcycle is a matter of wading through the glut of choice. There’s a wealth of content on the internet. YouTube has countless videos of whatever bikes you’re into, but, Pareto’s Principle definitely applies: Eighty percent of the the reviews are crap when it comes to actually informing the viewer. Pottering around on a Honda for a few miles and pronouncing that it “feels pretty good, YouTube!” after talking about your merchandise isn’t useful, even if it’s fun to watch over a morning coffee. There’s an entire subculture of riders equipped with a GoPro and microphone, collectively known as motovloggers it’s kind of fascinating and worth a blog post on its own.

I did find a number of channels that I ended up watching many hours of, if for nothing more than the creators were so enthusiastic and likeable. There’s really too many to write about, but a handful stood out in the beginning and I’ll write why.

Chaseontwowheels is a Georgia-based bloke whom records a lot of ‘first rides’ on new bikes, courtesy of a local dealer. Over time, I formed the opinion Chase isn’t a particularly thorough tester, but he doesn’t pretend to be, and he’s highly watchable, and his videos are well made. His impression of the Ninja 300 was somewhat tepid, but despite that, I liked what I saw. What he disliked about the bike – modest power, questionable long term satisfaction, I saw as a strengths for a new rider looking for a good all-rounder they won’t kill themselves on.

In that review, Chase remarked:

I definitely feel like if you get one of these you’re gonna…I feel you’ll outgrow it eventually…which is why I recommend [a] 650 bike.

He’s not wrong. Sort of. This is a very, very common sentiment regarding 250/300cc class bikes. There is some truth in it, but it depends on what you’re looking for in your riding. Again, that’s another topic I want to write about, as it it much more complex than it may seem.

For a rider in his first year, I loved Iamramekin’s early videos. He’s zooming about on a meaty Yamaha R6 these days, but his early videos on his Ninja 250R are lovely. Here’s one where he takes his bike around the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) range. This is of particular interest to a beginner, because in the USA, you’ll be doing this. More on the MSF course in another post.

If you concluded I’d sold myself on the Ninja 300 from the start, you would be right, but I did digress for a while and very nearly talked myself out of it. The way I saw it was, I wanted a 250/300 bike, and the Ninja seemed to be the best one. Between me and a new bike, there were still many things in the way, both real and imaginary. I still hadn’t even sat on one.

The reader may have spotted there’s a lot of feeling here, but little in the way of hard fact. One thing you learn about motorcycles is, there’s a vast amount of opinion. A lot of it is just that – opinion – and there’s few easy answers. If you ask a forum what direction you should go, you won’t get a clear answer. Part of this is because of the diversity in motorcycle culture, and this in itself is totally different in the UK and USA.

I needed to knuckle down and establish how I really felt about this. Get to first principles, what I want, and why. Then figure out how to do it.

Beginnings

April 2015, around 0800hrs.

It’s a sunny spring morning, and I’m driving to work in my wife’s ten-year old Corolla. The ubiquitous Toyota is the only vehicle we own. Having just moved out to the suburbs, the intent was to eventually get a second car.

A few blocks from work, a motorbike merges ahead of my car. I recognised the loud green house colours of Kawasaki, but it was the rider that caught my eye. A petite woman, wearing pressed lightweight black trousers, trainers, and a hoodie – likely, I supposed – over a suit jacket. Despite the fact the attire would not please the ATGATT police, I thought she looked decidedly cool. The exposed element of soft formal wear seemed at odds with the hard metal frame and aggressive styling of her ride, but the whole get-up worked.

My attention was drawn to the bike as the car moved closer. This was obviously somebody commuting, and It seemed an interesting choice of vehicle. I didn’t know much about bikes, but I knew of the Ninja brand name. At the time I thought that denoted a top-line performance bike, but I now know it to have been a 250R; Kawasaki’s entry-level sport bike:

Ninja 250R

Kawasaki Ninja 250R by BN2815

I really liked the way the bike looked; the utility of it, the fun. It stayed with me all day until I got home, and I hit Google and started learning more about the world of motorbikes. This started me down a road that would eventually lead me to ownership of my very own bike, but that would be some months off, and I’ll be writing the rest of the story.

I’m sure the internet is thrilled.