What is the main incentive for getting a motorcycle endorsement in the first place? Freedom. The open road. Attacking the apex. And all the other buzzworthy cliches people go on about at Cars and Coffee or at the bikers’ dive or yet another awful documentary on Sturgis or from that one guy who “once got to ride his Gixxer at Leguna Seca” and won’t shut up about it. You’ve heard these cliches before. You’ve heard them so often it’s grown beyond biker culture, into the fabric of general pop culture itself. It’s become the ultimate mid-life crisis go-to besides a Corvette or Porsche. It’s probably what’s killing motorcycle culture.
Growing up in that context enforces certain tropes about motorcycle culture to the point where we’ve accepted them as inalienable truths, as concrete as Ferrari being the last word in the world of supercars or being able to tackle any trail obstacle as long as your grille has seven slots and your spare tire cover says if you can read this roll me over! People who have been caged all their lives accept the fact that the best way to experience America is on the seat of a Harley-Davidson, or that the ‘Busa is second-to-none because a magazine made vague reference to it going 200 MPH somewhere. And that the entirety of all motorcycle wisdom can be boiled down to these two facts, and that everything else - Harley 883 Sportsters, Japanese bikes that kind of look like Harleys, Japanese bikes that don’t look like Harleys but kind of look like British or Italian bikes instead - is just a stepping stone towards working one’s way to true wisdom.
So that is the context I’ve believed my entire life up to until two years ago when I finally got that “M” on my license. What I’ve learned from what I’ve ridden since then has completely changed my perception of what motorcycles are and what they should stand for - including whether or not they’re really the epitome of road-based enjoyment we’ve all come to take for granted.
The Most Important Thing - Have a Bike You’re Happy With
The Mazda Miata is the answer to everything. That’s become a popular truism in the automotive world in the past decade, and it’s far from being unearned. It’s not the perfect car, but that’s not the point - it’s a fun yet economic car at an affordable price point, new or used. Even so it’s not a fun economic car for everyone - some people are physically too big for it, or it’s not comfortable enough for the type of driving some people actually consider fun.
I’ve learned it’s the same thing for motorcycles, and I had to learn that lesson the hard way - through several clunky bikes that were an ideal for someone else, through having to share and be force-fed that ideal and ultimately learning that their ideals are my idea of appalling. Appalling handling, atrocious comfort, or simply being a poor physical match for what that bike demands from its rider. I’ve seen other riders or would-be riders fully expect themselves to be happy with someone else’s ideal of a bike or riding experience without giving any thought to what they would actually be happy with, and a lot of it has to do with those cultural motorcycle tropes that pop culture has convinced itself to be truisms. And all too many times those truisms are just a simple, lazy straight line to whatever bike has the most horsepower or is the fastest, or what Harley on the showroom floor has the biggest price tag.
I shouldn’t have to tell you what bike will make you happy - but look beyond the raw performance numbers or the overwrought retro-cruiser looks. How fast a bike goes or how cool it looks means squat when you can’t even ride it comfortably, or if the riding experience is so boring it almost literally puts you to sleep at 70 miles per hour.
First, Learning What You’re Not Happy With
More likely than not it’s going to be a lengthy trial-and-error period of discovering what bike or riding style you like. This is why most experienced riders recommend a cruiser, sport or standard-style bike in the 250cc-300cc range; not only are they slow enough to not get you in trouble, but (more importantly, actually) they’re light enough and handle easy enough so you can figure out which type of bike is for you without dropping it at every intersection and consequently having to beg every passer-by to help you lug your bike back on two wheels.
Also, invest in crash bars and/or crash pegs for your bike. Worth more than every penny.
How do I know this? Again, through personal trial-and-error experience with an ‘09 Yamaha FZ6 that I’ve written about before. I’ve learned more about what I like on a motorcycle with that bike than any other I’ve ridden so far - compared to what I had up to that point it rode as smoothly as a two-wheel Lexus. The high-revving water-cooled 600cc class four-pot felt like a completely different world of transportation just on its merits alone. It’s why I recommend every rider at least try a 600cc standard class bike once in their lives. Steering was like reciting the instructions given to Clint Eastwood in Firefox - you think of a lane change, and without a single nudge of the wrist or shift in weight you’re there. I’ve gone “fast enough” and let’s just leave it at that - crouched down or upright, it doesn’t take away from the machine’s comfort. As long as it was slicing forward through the wind, it was a great machine.
The exact bike in question, photo by the author
I also learned a bit about what I don’t like in a bike - as much as I loved it as long as it was moving, I hated the sunnovabitch when standing still. It was stupidly top-heavy and maneuvering it around tight spaces was a chore. The throttle was choppy in the friction zone and prone to stalling. Taking it to the shop only made it more prone to stalling. When you have a top-heavy bike with a squirrely, jerky throttle in first gear it tends to get dropped. A lot. Trying to right a top-heavy bike isn’t fun either, even if it’s only 600cc’s.
I don’t want to go back to a top-heavy bike, no matter how doable people say it is otherwise. At 5’7” I’m not even that short of a person, and I have unusually long legs for my height to boot. Continuously dropping bikes might be a sign that you have a technique issue that you need to un-learn pronto, or something else that might mean a trip back to the rider’s safety course, or even rethink the whole motorcycle hobby. Continuously dropping one specific bike, especially after logging a few thousand miles problem-free on notoriously heavy cruiser bikes, might indicate it’s time to go back to the dealer and see what can be done for a trade-in.
But I also learned what makes a bike and ride entertaining, at least for me. All that junk Wes Siler and Sean MacDonald won’t shut up about? Yeah, I’d be willing to buy into it. Something that actually feels connected to the road, and other focus group testing terms found in BMW marketing materials.
It turns out - and I know this sounds amazing - all that BMW marketing talk is no joke. Perhaps there’s no better way of discovering that than motorcycle riding. Not even necessarily through a BMW Motorrad, but in contrast to the bike I’ve logged more miles on than any other - a Yamaha/“Star Motorcycles” VStar 950, yet another drop in a sea of Japanese Harley clones. Not all Japanese Harley clones are made equally, and some of them are actually decent, but on the scale of things I find the VStar 950 firmly in tryhard territory.
Again, the exact bike in question, photo by the author.
The VStar 950 taught me that I don’t like long bikes - and the VStar 950 is long, with or without its weight class and cruiser style into consideration. It’s not much shorter than many if not most full-size cruisers - and by that, I mean bikes that brag about having V-twins the size of your typical compact or midsize car I4. In other words, bikes with engine displacement twice the size of this thing. Naturally, a bike this long can’t corner well - to the point where the low footrests actually come with replaceable skidpads. It’s a bike that puts chopper(ish) looks ahead of any other real design consideration, like actually being a bike. It’s hard not to look at it and conclude that it’s a bike for poseurs, a bike that’s reaching for a simulacrum of a certain motorcycle trope in people’s minds.
On the plus side, it’s a very comfortable bike, but that’s where the contrast to BMW’s famous marketing comes in. With your feet forward and relaxed seating position, you can cruise comfortably for miles. But at the same time, you feel extremely disconnected from the environment around you. I’d say a very accurate description of the riding experience is sitting in your favorite office chair while scenery on a Chroma-key background MPH
r higher. Even most empty backroads cruising (especially most empty backroads cruising) happens at those speeds, especially out here. This isn’t exactly sportbike country.
A riding experience like that makes you beg the question, what’s the point? Why am I out here? If I’m on this thing to explo car? Why not just stay at home and binge-watch Netflix? Every time I get on this bike, I think, it’s not fun. It seems very pointless. I’m thinking about how I could’ve made the time I spend on this bike productive, at home, instead of spending my time at home thinking about being on the bike. And I think it more and more, every time I go for another ride, until I’m so bored I’m seriously thinking if this will be the last ride before the bike sits under covers in the garage for more months than what actually comprises winter.
That is not how it’s supposed to work. That is the exact opposite of how it’s supposed to work.
The average road east of Denver, Colorado, photo by the author.
No wonder riding gets so boring.
When the roads are this straight, having some sort of dynamic connection is important. Being able to hit high revs is also important so you can jet past the boredom.
Photo by the author
Again, if there’s anything I learned about riding it’s that there’s merit to a simple, low-weight bike. Colin Chapman could’ve easily been talking about motorcycles when he said simplify, and add lightness. Let’s not talk about how easier a lighter bike is to maneuver, let’s talk about how more fun it is to maneuver. A bike’s nimbleness really translates to road movement regardless if it’s a cruiser, sport or standard-style bike. And it makes parking lot adventures much easier.