Saturday, September 13, 2008


A rider of long acquaintance, whose skill and confidence with a motorcycle I greatly admired, had a ritual he undertook each spring around the time the warm weather arrived.

He would don his riding gear, gas up his R75, and early of a Saturday morning, ride to the nearby intersection of two major parkways. Each road was four divided lanes; their intersection was a meticulously maintained and landscaped cloverleaf. There he would spend the better part of an hour riding the cloverleaf from loop to loop, never actually getting on or off a road, but simply honing his skills, rubbing the rust and dust off, and blowing away the cobwebs.

He would enter and exit again and again until he was satisfied with the results, moving in an endless progression of turns. His object was gentle, fluid transitions, all throttle and clutch—no brakes.

Far too few riders take their riding so seriously. It’s like a musician playing scales: it’s something you need to do if you ever expect to become really proficient.

I was reminded of this rider’s ritual recently, albeit under different circumstances. I broke a long-standing personal rule about ride routes by including a brief out-and-back segment, a straight line doubling back and covering the same stretch of road twice. It’s not like I’ve even seen all the good roads a first time, much less that I can afford to see something twice in the same few minutes. But this was a special case.

My attention was captured by the sign thoughtfully placed by the highway department warning tractor-trailers against taking this road. Steep, narrow turns, something like that, it said. What more could you ask for?

The road begins gently enough, rolling slowly upwards through pastureland bordered by dark forests. But shortly, the dark forests are at the verge of the road and the road itself is lost around the next turn. It ascends steeply through a modest gap, then begins a precipitous and serpentine course carved between abrupt roadside banks of clay and gravel on one hand and dark deep ravines on the other. Light and shadow strobes across the road as you go, and then suddenly you are released again into farms and fields, though these face a different valley than where we just were.

Stop. Turn around. Rewind the road, regain the starting point, put the steep on the left and the drop on the right, climb where we descended and descend where we climbed, regain our original course a few minutes behind schedule and a few miles richer. It’s a four mile-long refresher course in lean, roll-on and roll-off, in diving hard into corners and heeling the bike over when you need to in order to follow the road.

It is a nice easy way, in just a few miles, to knock the rust off, to whet the edges a bit, to restore the fine point at the tip and focus on the fundamentals. It is a joyous rider's étude, a scale to be played from low note to high and back again on the road to proficiency.

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