The time had finally come. I learned to ride a motorcycle, but not like Ken Roczen, although he was my inspiration.
To be fair, there are many differences between Ken Roczen and I. He looks like what would happen if Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender had a perfect little blond baby. I do not have a familial resemblance to either. Also, Roczen is 22, scrawny, 5’6” and, until a couple years ago, was still wearing studded leather bracelets, spiked hair and punk T-shirts. None of these things describe me.
Most importantly though, he can do things on a motorcycle that would make your parents cry. He was the favourite to win the AMA Monster Energy Supercross series this season, until a spectacular crash. The basic premise of Supercross is that it is a motorcycle race, on dirt tracks with huge jumps that takes place in a stadium. As such, it’s often lumped in with other Xtreme 1990s pseudo-sports like monster truck rallies, or the X-Games. It is, however, much better than monster trucks.
Early this season, after winning the first two races, Roczen was bucked off his Honda CRF450R while doing a triple (leaping over three jumps in one go). He was 30 feet in the air when he flew up off the bike like gravity suddenly stopped working. Only it hadn’t, and he shattered his forearm and wrist when he came down, hard.
Of course, Supercross and Kenny Roczen are just one little corner of the motorcycling world. Since getting my licence, I’ve been discovering the many obscure, weird, exciting subcultures of motorcycling. There’s more to it than chaps-and-Harleys, and the Twelve O’Clock Boys. As a beginner, it’s a bit like the first day of high school. There are all these cliques out there and you get to re-invent yourself once you join one.
I enjoy going fast, and I’m reasonably good at it. After all, it’s my job to drive the latest supercars and report back from the frontier of speed. But if fast cars are a drug, I’ve been overdosing lately. Too many fast cars desensitize you to their inherent joy. They begin to blur together.
Or, maybe it’s the cars. They’re becoming too easy. They’re going digital, computerized and idiot-proof: automatic drift control, automatic throttle blipping, autonomous driving. They’re going to start reporting on themselves soon. Motorcycles, on the other hand, aren’t in danger of becoming easy.
Beyond that, I wanted to learn to ride out of professional curiosity. Riding a motorcycle must be stupendous fun. Why else would people risk life and limb to do it?
My first crash was a good one. Not as bad as Roczen’s, but we’re basically motorcycle blood-brothers now. It was raining; I was riding in circles in a parking lot taking a beginner’s course with the not-for-profit Rider Training Institute. I clenched my fist around the brake lever, locking the front wheel, which sent me, and the bike on top of me, sliding across the pavement. I remember the sound my helmet made as it grinded to a halt on the asphalt. I couldn’t use my right arm for weeks as it turned from purple to green to yellow.
It was humbling to crash at 20 km/h and it would’ve been downright humiliating had I told everyone my day job is to drive supercars around race tracks. The other trainees — mostly older bearded men, a few young women — who showed in the parking lot weren’t doing much better. We all came prepared with leather jackets and helmets and boots, looking, if not bad to the bone, then at least bad to the hypodermis. Standing there, we looked good. Once on the bikes, however, we looked like drunken clowns. There was no posing or pretension after that. Everyone was humbled.
But, it’s exciting being terrible at something. There’s a freedom at the very bottom of the learning curve, with no expectations and nothing to prove. It could take a lifetime to get good at riding a motorcycle, and that, I think, is the attraction. I’ll get back to you once I’ve ridden down a real road.
I think I’m going to buy a dirtbike. I can’t wait to try a jump.