8 Odd Things I Noticed When I Bought a Motorcycle

Certain Motorcyclists Started Treating Me Differently When I Bought This Bike.
Certain Motorcyclists Started Treating Me Differently When I Bought This Bike.
Photo by Chris Lane

Buying a motorcycle for the first time exposes a person to a huge new world of experiences - Some directly related to the act of riding a motorized, two-wheeled vehicle on roads shared by sometimes terrible drivers rolling through town in huge metal boxes, and others involving motorcycle culture in general. So what can a motorcycle newbie expect when they ride out of the dealership on a new bike? Let's take a look.

8. You Will Hear Lots of Horror Stories About Riding Motorcycles.

One of the first things almost anyone contemplating riding a motorcycle will hear from someone - a spouse, parent, friend, or family member is how dangerous riding a motorcycle is. Sometimes these dire warnings come from near strangers upon hearing you ride a bike (or want to). The worst of those warnings will come with a horrific anecdote or two, like "Remember when the Anderson kid hit the back of that truck and got his head chopped off?"

And it's true, riding motorcycles can be a dangerous activity, especially while navigating busy Houston streets. More on that shortly. But after a point, hearing about how dangerous something you are set on doing can be just gets tiresome. Any responsible new rider should accept that riding motorcycles can be dangerous, and then take as many steps as possible to make his or her riding safer. But yeah, be prepared to hear lots of horror stories, and the suggestion that you will surely die a fiery death mangled into pulp from lots of people you know. On that note...

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7. You'll Quickly Realize That Lots of People Drive Poorly.

I don't think it's a controversial observation that a lot of people here tend to drive like irresponsible idiots, speeding 20 miles over the limit, swerving in and out of lanes, while texting or talking on their cell phones. Safely maneuvering though an environment like that can be a challenge, especially for someone without a lot of experience on two wheels. Intersections and traffic situations that seem perfectly safe from within a car start to look alarmingly dangerous on a motorcycle. The change in perspective can be huge.

Motorcyclists routinely encounter terrible drivers on the road, and it tends to make a person cautious. Pulling alongside a huge truck with a bunch of dents on one side? My mind always assumes that person keeps hitting stuff, and I immediately try to put distance between myself and him. And when you know that a bad encounter with a car and a motorcycle is probably worth a trip to the hospital instead of just a mild fender bender, it tends to change a person's perspective. 

When Half The Vehicles on The Road Look Like This, Caution is Especially Important For a Motorcyclist.
When Half The Vehicles on The Road Look Like This, Caution is Especially Important For a Motorcyclist.
Photo by Chris Lane

6. Car Drivers Can Suck, But So Can The Road.

It's bad enough that the average motorcycle rider is going to encounter bad drivers whose selfish and crappy driving could result in the kind of grisly demise those folks always warn about. No one wants to be an unpleasant statistic, but it's not just irresponsible car drivers who pose a threat to motorcyclists; the roads can be dangerous all by themselves. Houston streets seem to be perpetually under construction, and they change daily. A road that was fun to ride on the day before can transform into a nightmare of closed lanes, or new potholes overnight, and while that's usually just irritating when you're in a car, it really sucks to discover when you're riding a motorcycle. Then there are other safety considerations.

5. A Lot of People Don't Dress Well to Ride.

It's none of my business, but I sure see a lot of people riding motorcycles who aren't really dressed for the occasion. And by that, I mean they've made clothing choices that aren't smart ones. It might be comfortable, especially in a hot ,humid city like Houston, but wearing flip flops and khaki shorts while riding a motorcycle looks dumb, because it is dumb. There are scary photos online of the consequences of just such a clothing ensemble in the case of an accident, and seeing those was enough to convince me that at the very least, long pants and some form of protective footwear are pretty much mandatory when I ride. Ditto with some form of protective eyewear. A junebug hitting your face at 50 miles per hour feels like being hit with a rock. A hit to the eye is not something you want to experience without protection.

When a person gets on a motorcycle, he is essentially sitting on top of a rolling engine with no protection at all other than what he chooses to wear. I'll save beachwear for the beach, and just toss the khaki shorts. Those look stupid on anybody.

And it doesn't help that there are definite motorcycle cultures that like to project a certain image, and in many cases that image doesn't promote safe clothing choices. More on that shortly.

4. A Lot of Motorcyclists Disagree About Helmets and Loud Exhausts.

It seems counterintuitive, but helmet use is controversial in many motorcycle circles. My take is that lots of people just don't want to wear a helmet despite plenty of evidence that it's way safer to wear them than not. But a lot of motorcyclists are hard headed (although not enough to keep their skulls intact in the case of pavement impact) and just don't like to do what they're told they should. I get that, I can be like that too sometimes. But it's hard for me to take seriously when people try to argue that wearing most helmets is actually more dangerous than none at all. There are exceptions to nearly every rule, but I've been in an accident with a car where I went over a hood, and the helmet I wore definitely minimized what could have been a much more serious set of injuries.

Another controversy involves loud exhaust systems. There's a "Loud Pipes Save Lives" school of thought, most popular among Harley Davidson owners, and the types of people that tend to ride bikes modeled after them and their image. But there's no massive study that I'm aware of which supports this claim. Anecdotally, I've heard stories from people claiming that the almost comically loud aftermarket exhausts they had installed on their bikes "saved their ass" a time or two, but my experience has always been that riding defensively is what always has saved mine. And I say this as a person who rides a Harley with aftermarket pipes. I just don't think loud pipes are primarily a safety feature, but instead something that some people think are "cool." And about that cool factor... 3. The Type of Motorcycle You Ride Dictates What Some Other Motorcyclists Think of You.

It's sad but true, for a lot of riders, the type of bike they ride determines how other riders interact with them. Now it's true, not everyone is closed minded about this. I personally think that a person who rides a 50 cc scooter in city traffic every day is more of a "biker" than a dude with a custom Harley who rides his ten or 20 miles a year. But there are a lot of closed-minded creeps out there who think anyone on a sport bike is a dumb kid, or thinks Japanese bikes are garbage, or Sportsters (a Harley Davidson model) are "girl bikes," or any number of other dumb things. 

Before You Assume That Shirt Was Made in the U.S.A., You Better Check the Tag.
Before You Assume That Shirt Was Made in the U.S.A., You Better Check the Tag.

Some people are so caught up in the particular subcultures surrounding their brand of motorcycles that they view anyone who owns anything else as an enemy of sorts. It's ridiculous. I didn't join some club of biker morons when I bought a Harley, anymore than I became a "girl" when I cut around town on a scooter. But some motorcyclists will judge you by the ride you choose, and that's pretty sad.

2. Despite Marketing and Image, "American Motorcycles" Aren't Exactly Entirely Made in America.

I'm not trying to criticize Harley riders specifically, right now I own and ride one, and I love their bikes. But there's a lot of stupid baggage attached to the brand. Harley Davidson has carefully shaped that baggage itself, marketing to an eager consumer base who want to own part of the image that comes with those bikes. One of the lingering misconceptions is that Harley Davidsons and everything to do with them are entirely made in America. That's just not the case. They are engineered here, and most of the major components are still manufactured in the United States, but a lot of individual parts are not. Buy aftermarket add-ons, and a lot of those aren't either. Even the ones with an American flag used as part of the design. Clothing and a lot of the Harley "lifestyle" merchandise definitely aren't. So before some dude on a Harley lectures you about buying American because you pulled up on a Triumph, ask to see where his Harley and American flag T-shirt was actually made.

I guess my problem with the Harley culture is that it's marketed as being this "American Rebel" brand. Some people eat, sleep, and breathe that image, and it's just stupid to me. There are other American motorcycle companies like Indian and Victory, and I've been told Victory bikes are entirely manufactured from parts made here. Taking pride in riding a Harley because they're made in the United States, while sneering at someone on a foreign bike, just seems dumb. The truth is a lot more complicated than that.

1. A Lot of Motorcycle Culture is Built On a "Rebel" Image That's Not Rebellious At All.

This is something I've long noticed, and it's not a "bad" thing, but always a little odd to me. So much about motorcycle culture in this country celebrates a sort of homogenized "outlaw" culture, that's not edgy or outlaw at all, but is instead the status quo. I remember one of the first times I became aware of the phenomena. My old band was on tour somewhere in the Midwest, and we were pulling into a giant truck stop to get gas and stretch our legs. As we did, I saw a large group of Harleys parked near the entrance with a bunch of scary looking biker types in full leathers with what looked like outlaw club patches on the back of their jackets. I was worried they would screw with us since we looked weird and also were traveling with several attractive women, who I was concerned would be harassed.

Then we got closer, and all worries melted away. They were a club of Harley riding people in their 50s, who, despite the semi-outlaw attire, looked like they lived in nice suburbs and worked as bank managers and lawyers somewhere.

I guess I find it odd that it's so common, but a lot of people borrow elements from real outlaw biker culture (minus the meth labs and prostitution rings) as part of their image. And I get it. Almost everyone likes to live dangerously, or at least to appear like they do. I just find the fashion appropriation weird when it's used by comfortably middle to upper class motorcyclists.

And the cookie cutter fashion rebellion is odd too. Just how rebellious is it to essentially follow some off the shelf fashion template? Personally, I customize my bikes, and I admit that I like them to look a little "mean." I'm not wholly original in what I find appealing in motorcycles. But I also think that it's cool to break from convention and do your own thing. Despite those feelings, I try not to judge otherwise decent folk who just happen to want to look sorta like a Hells Angel. I Don't understand it, but as long as they're not judging anyone else, to each their own.

Despite encountering dangerous drivers, bad roads, and noticing some off-putting aspects of motorcycle culture, riding them is a blast, and I wouldn't trade that experience for anything else. There is a certain moving poetry that happens when a rider and his bike seem to become one with one another, and a state of heightened sensory perception begins to happen. Rolling down a moonlit highway on a motorcycle, witnessed by nothing except the passing landscape and stars, is a special kind of magic.


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