Monday, November 22, 2010

The Biker Lifestyle

If I have one regret in life, it's that I didn't start riding a motorcycle 30 years earlier.

How It Started
It was St. Patrick's Day 2007, a Saturday.  Teri (my wife) and I were taking Kelsey (our daughter) and her then boyfriend (who shall remain nameless) to the Georgia Aquarium in downtown Atlanta.  Irish folk music on XM radio was our soundtrack for the ride and a light drizzle welcomed us as we waited in line for close to an hour.

We'd been at the aquarium for a little more than an hour when my cell phone rang.  It was my son Caleb who at the time was stationed at Fort Sill in Oklahoma.  "Hey Dad, listen to this," he said and I heard the rumble of a 650cc engine as he fired up his brand new Yamaha V-Star Classic.

I was infected.  The biker bug had bitten me and begun its incubation period.  Over the next six weeks I researched motorcycles tirelessly.  I learned about engine displacement, bore and stroke, compression ratios, chain vs. belt vs. shaft final drive systems, air cooled vs. liquid cooled, fuel injection vs. carburetors.  And I looked at all the different styles and makes, cruisers, touring bikes, sportbikes, Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki, Honda, Harley.

Spec sheets and model comparisons were shooting out of my printer until it ran out ink, twice.  Motorcycle forums and online biker magazines were added to my web browser favorites.  I did a couple of "just looking, thanks," stealth runs to my local big-four Japanese dealership (there wasn't a Harley dealership in Newnan at that time).

I narrowed it down to a cruiser between 500cc and 1000cc with shaft drive.  There were actually quite a few models that fit those specs, so I did a little more research.  At the time both Yamaha and Suzuki were offering pretty good financing deals so I focused attention on those two manufacturers.

Finally, I figured if the V-Star was good enough for Caleb, then it would be good enough for me.  And the 2007 model was available in white, something that at the time, for reasons I can't fully explain, appealed to me.  I called Cycle City (our local dealer) and yes they did have a V-Star Classic in white in stock.

Saturday of Memorial Day weekend Teri and I were at Cycle City.  I went straight to the white V-Star and sat on it.  Within seconds a salesman was standing next to me.  I asked for the guy I'd spoken with on the phone, Bobby.  He was with another customer, so I strolled around, looking at helmets and other gear that I knew I'd need.  Meanwhile Teri was looking at a used Kawasaki Eliminator.

Bobby found me looking at saddlebags.  We went back over to the V-Star as I told him that we'd spoken earlier in the week and what I was looking for.  We talked about the V-Star for a couple of minutes and then he said, "Before you make up your mind for sure, let me show you this."

Parked a few bikes away was a blue-purple (or blurple) Suzuki Boulevard M50.  The Boulevard had more of a chopper-muscle style with bobbed fenders compared to the full fenders on the V-Star.  The Boulevard was also a little bigger, with an 805cc engine compared to the 649cc power plant on the V-Star.  The Boulevard also had two other features that the V-Star lacked, liquid cooling and fuel injection.  It was the fuel injection that pushed me over to the Boulevard side, though it was a little more expensive.

Bobby sensed my resistance at the additional cost, so we talked a little more and with the deal Suzuki was offering he got the price within sniffing distance of sticker on the V-Star.  We filled out some paperwork, I took the tire replacement option (a total waste of money, don't bother with this if it's ever offered to you) and the pre-paid service deal (which was definitely worth the money, over the three years of the agreement I more than got my money out of it with oil and fluid changes and valve adjustments).  Bobby ran the paperwork back to the finance department, a tech took the bike into the shop for final prep and I picked out a Fulmer helmet, Tourmaster jacket and Cortech gloves.

My ride, the 2007 Suzuki Boulevard M50

This whole time Teri was looking around, but she kept going back to the Eliminator.  "Do you want it?"  I asked her.  She took a minute to answer and said, "No...not today.  I can ride on the back of yours." 

Twenty minutes later I was geared up and sitting on the M50 in the parking lot, thinking I was going to ride it home.  I was wrong.  I had little a trouble mastering the friction zone on the clutch and stalled it three times.  One of the techs rode it home for me.  I spent the rest of the weekend riding up and down the driveway.  Once I'd done it ten times in a row without stalling I ventured out into the neighborhood.

Over the next two weeks I got my motorcycle permit and signed up for a Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) course at a Harley dealership up in Cobb County, about 45 minutes away.  The earliest the course was available was August.  And I started riding further, with Teri following in the car.  That lasted for almost three weeks and then Teri realized I was having all the fun.  So it was back to Cycle City.  On the drive over she said, "If the Eliminator is still there we'll get it, but if it's gone, maybe I shouldn't get a bike."  It was still there, and I rode it home myself.  By that time a Harley dealership had opened in Newnan and Teri took her MSF course a week after I'd finished mine.

Embracing The Biker Lifestyle
Picture in your mind a biker.  Chances are you thought of a grizzled looking bearded guy in a leather vest with tattoos, a one percenter, a member of an outlaw motorcycle club (MC).  In the last few years the image of motorcycle riders has improved, thanks in large part to TV shows like American Chopper, Monster Garage, Biker Build Off and the two Ewan McGregor documentary series, Long Way Round and Long Way Down and the John Travolta movie Wild Hogs.  But shows like Sons Of Anarchy, while well written and compelling, and the History Channel's Gangland continue to portray the stereotypical outlaw biker.  I'm not talking about those guys.

I'm not talking about these guys

When I talk about the biker lifestyle I'm talking about the sheer joy you can only experience by punching the starter button and leaning into that first turn out of the driveway on your way to it doesn't matter where.  You become acutely aware of the slightest change in temperature as you roll down a slight incline.  You feel the gust of a tractor-trailer traveling in the opposite direction.  It is at once mind clearing and demanding of your total concentration.  It is ultimately about the ride, but there's more to it than that alone.

Nothing I've been involved with has started more conversations than motorcycles.  Complete strangers will come up to me in a parking lot and ask about the bike, how long I've been riding, where I got it, how much it cost.  They'll say how they've always wanted to ride but just never got around to it.  If they're a fellow biker they'll share some of their favorite rides or invite me to come and ride with their club.  On the road every other biker is a brother (or sister) and gets and returns the biker wave, left hand, first two fingers pointing down.  While the number of women bikers, and their percentage among all bikers, are increasing every year, a female rider (as opposed to a passenger-there is no such thing a motorcycle "driver") is still rare enough that Teri will often get a "Woo-hoo, you go girl!" from passing women cagers (a "cager" is biker speak for someone in a car).

Motorcycling For The Empty Nesters
Once Teri got that Eliminator we discovered that motorcycling was an activity we could share both on and off the bikes.  Our son, Caleb, was already out of the house with a family of his own.  And Kelsey, our daughter, was then a junior in high school, just a little more than a year away from going off to college.  It was the perfect time to adopt a new, shared lifestyle.

We bought a couple of books, Proficient Motorcycling and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Motorcycles and read them together.  We shopped online together for accessories and gear, visited Cycle City often enough that we're on a first name basis with most of the staff, and attended motorcycle shows.  We helped each other install saddlebags on both bikes (and then on Teri's new Kawasaki Vulcan 500, and then on her latest ride, a Kawasaki Vulcan 900).  We put a rider's backrest on the M50 and a windshield on the Vulcan 900.  We got each other heated gloves for Christmas one year and a bluetooth motorcycle intercom set the next. 

Teri's most recent ride, the 2009 Kawasaki Vulcan 900

Kids?  What kids?  Did we used to have kids?  Actually we're not totally empty nesters yet.  Kelsey still lives at home and commutes to school.  She will, on rare occasions, accompany us on an outing, riding on the back of my bike.  About the only thing we're still putting off is a multi-day trip, since we don't want to leave Kelsey alone for a weekend, not that she'd notice we were gone.  But there's still plenty of time for that once Kelsey moves out on her own.

Ride Your Own Ride
Teri prefers to have a specific destination in mind when we ride.  That's fine with me.  We've enjoyed planning out our rides almost as much we enjoy the ride itself.  We've found some wonderful restaurants within a couple of hours of home.  There was Butlers Mill in Graham, Alabama, a little buffet place on the banks of the Little Tallapoosa River that specializes in seafood, or is catfish technically riverfood?  It's in an old cotton mill not far from the Georgia state line.  We've also ridden to Juliette, Georgia and had lunch at the Whistle Stop Café, site of the movie Fried Green Tomatoes.  A little closer to home, and our most frequent ride to eat spot, is Senoia Coffee & Café, where they roast their own coffee and serve a mean cheesecake.

We don't always ride together.  When she was working dayshift at Newnan Hospital Teri would ride to work.  And when I was employed full-time I rode every day unless it was raining or below 35 degrees.  I still ride when I have on-site jobs.  And since the beginning if one of us is riding solo we always call the other one when we've arrived at our destination.  When Teri and Kelsey do a girls' day out I'll take off on the M50 and just wander with no particular end in mind.  I've not always known exactly where I was, but I've never been lost.

We've done a few group rides.  Quite a few churches in our area have motorcycle groups and we've ridden with a few.  There are a number of Harley riders in our own church and we've been out with them a time or two.  The wife of a colleague of mine recently finished up her Master's degree and treated herself to a motorcycle.  Teri and I took her on her first "group" ride, just the three of us.  We went to Warm Springs, Georgia, another of our favorite destinations and home of FDR's "little White House".

Still More To Look Forward To
I'm still very satisfied with the M50 and I think Teri will be happy with the Vulcan 900 for quite a while.  But I still check out the new models every year.  I've already picked out a couple "next" bikes.  My first "next" was the Kawasaki Mean Streak, but they discontinued that model before I was ready to trade up.  Lately I've been lusting over the Kawasaki Nomad and Voyager, something a little better suited to a multi-day trip (cause Kelsey will eventually strike out on her own).  I also kind of like the Harley Fat Bob, if only it was liquid cooled.

Truth is I'll probably have picked out half a dozen new "next" bikes before I'm actually ready to buy.  But there will be a next bike, or three.  And when (if) I ever get too old to hold a two wheeler upright at a red light there's always a trike.  See, that biker bug that bit me back on St. Patrick's Day 2007, it's incurable.  I only wish it had bitten me 30 years earlier.  I'm just sayin'.

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