Friday, September 12, 2008

The Line

I ranted earlier about the reason people give for riding, especially the unfounded assumptions made by non-riders on my behalf. Intangible and frankly irrelevant reasons like freedom, rebelliousness, living outside the law and other incoherent and inarticulate assumptions of the vast endoquadricyclic public.

Here’s the real skinny. It’s all about the line.

A long time ago I described the difference between how traffic looks from on a bike versus the view from in a car. A motorcycle is two points, and therefore geometrically is one-dimensional—a line. A car is four points, and therefore is geometrically two-dimensional—a plane. For discussion’s sake, we can ignore the third dimension, since for all intents and purposes neither cars nor motorcycles operate in the third dimension. And we will also ignore time, although in this discussion it’s a much more relevant dimension than height.

Riding is a balancing act. At rest, motorcycles are elegant, poised sculptural things, but ungainly and clumsy left to their own devices—what rider hasn’t heard the sound of their securely parked bike tipping over once they had turned their back and walked away from it? But once a bike starts rolling, the magic begins.

Pilots know the magic moment for an aircraft; it is the rotation speed, the point when a taxiing plane can rotate nose-up around the axis of its wheels and transition from rolling to flying. The speed is specific to each type of plane and combination of conditions; for commercial airliners it is around 160 mph; for Beast, magic begins at 18 mph.

As we begin our travels, Beast demands I lead, guiding her in an ungainly dance that actually requires I steer—point the front wheel towards where I want her to go. She hesitates, tentative as she slowly finds her way in the equivalent of faltering baby steps. But around 18 mph, she knows her way; she takes over. The rotation of the wheels provides enough gyroscopic stability to keep the bike on an even keel; steering becomes countersteering—turning the front wheel opposite the direction you want to go—and leaning determine the course of bike and rider.
Bike and rider move in four dimensions, in one continuous fall.

As with the airplane in flight, forces are delicately balanced. Thrust and drag; lift and gravity; inertia and centripetal force. The only distinction between airplanes and motorcycles is that lift is generally not a significant factor for bikes—though aerodynamic effects must certainly be taken into account at higher speeds. Air resistance increases with the cube of velocity; and modern motorcycles are more than capable of easily entering the realm where those effects are considerable.

Beast and I have traveled many miles without my input to the handlebars; I simply sit back, detached and hands-free, watching as we move down the road at speed; together we set a course through common consent. A tensing muscle here, a slight shift of weight there; on occasion a turn or lane change signalled with a hand gesture that also serves to deflect our path.

A gentle turn is simply the act of falling over at high speed. As Beast begins to lay over and deflect her course, I compensate by increasing the throttle. The added speed increases the inertial forces towards the outside of the turn, and we stay in perfect balance on the line.

In fact, this is what the line—and the ride—is about: making a precision path in four-dimensions using in essence just the throttle. The line is the solution to a endless rolling equation, a graph drawn across the landscape of all the points between A and B where everything is in perfect balance, drawn with two tires and an 1100cc engine.

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