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Parallel Lives

“I have no criminal record and I don’t do drugs”, J said emphatically, nipping any fore-drawn conclusions in the bud. His outburst would find its context as we spoke, and I got the feeling this issue has arisen  before. “But I didn’t assume” I could have said, truthfully. Instead I just let him speak.  J has been a dedicated biker since leaving school; he’s now in his 50s. I have to ask how his passion for motorcycles started. “I was 16 and wanted to be mobile”, he reveals. Rather than wait another year for a provisional car license and the associated expense of lessons; he took the short-cut to mobility and started out on two wheels instead. Although chosen from a standpoint of convenience, biking soon won him over and he became a lifelong convert, well, so far at least.

“I just loved it”, he says, so much so that he was an all-weather, year-round biker until the age of 30. That’s dedication, especially during the extremes of the UK’s often miserable climate. Eventually the novelty wore off and for the last 2 decades J has switched to his car for the dire winter months. Yes, ultimately the weather always wins.  “It makes you a better car driver”, he says of his life on two wheels. That makes sense, viewing the road from the exposed perspective of a biker must certainly highlight the hazards of the daily commute. Not only that but the awareness of other bikers is elevated. So many are killed, or injured by car drivers who somehow ‘didn’t see’ the two wheeled road user in front, or to the side, of them.

So, whilst dedicated to his bikes, his biker friends, and a good portion of the life that is part of the package, J also moves effortlessly and carefully through the civilian world. He maintains a home, a job, a family, normality by any other name. It takes a little care, but J is well practiced through necessity. Certain behaviors engender associated consequences, usually delivered on the expectations of others, while J is merely minding his own business. “When you pull up (on a bike) alongside people at traffic lights they think you are trouble”, he reveals, admitting a conscious effort to redress the balance when not on the road. “I don’t look like a biker and it’s not on my resume.” The latter point came from a conversation with a former boss, who advised him never to mention it on a resume. Doing so would automatically render him a liability, akin to an “extreme sports” enthusiast in the eyes of prospective employers. He continues: “I hide the tattoos on my arms, even though they are not ‘biker’ tattoos.”  Nonetheless, all the elements contribute to a certain image that could work against him when he wants it least: in the context of a paying job for instance. In some respects J’s care amounts to hiding his true self, by his own admission.

Our society is not yet ready to accept J’s (or anyone’s) parallel, biker life on equal terms, though interestingly and perhaps more accurately, he doesn’t see any separation: “It’s all part of the same world”, he emphasizes. Social media is an ongoing, homogenizing force: the profiles of bikers, civvies, work colleagues, and more all co-exist on J’s Facebook page, side-by-side, each with equal weight and status. The lives behind them glide past each other like ships in the night whilst J’s path crosses them all.

The common, media-fueled perception of bikers, however, is the only consideration to most outsiders unwilling to think beyond prejudice. However like most myths, at the heart of it, there is a rare nugget of truth that most of us have no business with. The world is large enough to contain many rarities, all waiting to be found if you are prepared to search hard enough. Sometimes it’s wiser not to look.

Through a difficult time, a mid-life crisis that saw uncertainty and a change of relationships, J sought the company and perhaps the validation of a biker fraternity unashamedly nonchalant about their reputation among the often fearful mainstream: a “1%er” patch-wearing bike gang. The self-appointed “1%er” label originated in 1947 following a statement issued by the American Motorcyclist Association during the media frenzy that followed the Hollister (California) bike rally, aka “The Hollister Riot”. In attempts to counter the negative press, the A.M.A declared that 99% of motorcyclists are in fact law-abiding citizens. This inspired the hardened clubs of the period to blatantly declare that they were therefore the “other 1%”, choosing to value their own codes above the rule of law and thereby setting their reputation in stone.

After two years as a “prospect” (a would-be member tested for his obedience, respect and dedication), J became a full member although subsequent events were not set to follow his initial plan. He describes his adoptive organization in terms of “family”, but with a dedication over and above any biological equivalent. So much so that he could envisage his own flesh and blood family usurped and sidelined until only his biker brothers remained. This was only the start of his concerns. They saw him as intelligent and useful, even dangerously so. He could potentially be called upon to participate in risky, hazardous endeavors and remain the least likely suspect, such was his ability to blend with everyday “normality”. His clean record meant that any future legal transgressions would be met with relative leniency by the system, should he “take the rap” of course, something that he quickly realized he would be obliged to do. Any legal ‘difficulties’ would also have serious repercussions for his livelihood, such was the nature of his work. The far-reaching consequences of his membership were coming into grim focus: “Until you’re in it; you don’t realize”, he admits.

Usually there is no way back or out, but occasionally there are tales of those who have managed to extricate themselves. With his inevitable future becoming more apparent, J realized he must free himself or be trapped by events that could not be undone. Fortunately his mainstream job involving technical systems would provide the perfect leverage. Work would take him abroad for extended periods, forcing an absence from his biker life and its increasing commitments, much to the irritation of his internal and external families. With stress at home and the demands of work to contend with something had to give. On presenting his case to his gang superiors, it became apparent that he could no longer do his membership justice, and it was with some relief on J’s part that with due consideration they allowed him to step down and also to leave on good terms. “They’re less harsh than in the USA”, he tells me.

Today, nearly two decades later, he still remains good friends with some of his original bike chapter, but as a welcome outsider, a rare breed. His former life, although relatively brief, still follows him as an ex-member of a particular gang. There are places and events that he can’t visit, all territories marked by rival organizations that cannot be crossed now that he is indelibly stained for life by association with the enemy. Some shadows cannot be brushed aside, a cautionary tale.

Meanwhile, we may pass him in the street, and suspect nothing. After all: he still doesn’t look like a biker.

Innovv K1

Below is a bit of raw footage from the Innov K1 I have mounted on my 2012 V-Strom. 1 minute from work I was cut off by a cager who neither looked nor signaled a lane change. It’s for these specific incidents that I am happy to have the K1 system. A review of the unit appeared in RoadRUNNER Motorcycle Touring and Travel and can be read here. A longer example appears below.

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Better Shared

The article “Better Shared” by Bud Miller/Zen Motorcyclist was originally published on the “RoadRUNNER Motorcycle Touring & Travel” magazine website on 1/30/17.

To get the full value of joy you must have someone to divide it with. —Mark Twain

 

As I sit down to write this, summer is over and we’re well into autumn. I try to ride all year here in eastern Pennsylvania, but from late fall until spring I have very little company on the road. Fall is a time when, on solo rides, you recall the trips of the past year. Today I was thinking about riding at the RoadRUNNER Touring Weekend this past August, and of one route in particular.

It had been a while since I’d attended the Touring Weekend and I was happy to be back helping out, meeting new people, and catching up with Christa, Florian, and the rest of the staff. I loved the journey across my home state to Bolivar, PA, although it was smoldering hot with temperatures near 100. No matter, I had four days to do nothing but ride, have fun, and talk motorcycles.

On the second day of the event I had the opportunity to ride with Yuval Naveh, who writes RoadRUNNER’s “Motorcyclist’s Guide to the Galaxy” series. Yuval is a software engineer, avid rider, and friend to everyone he meets. We were also roommates for the duration of the weekend. On this particular day we ended up in a group with three other riders and the five of us set off in the blazing sun to do the Flight 93 memorial tour. If you’ve visited the memorial in Shanksville, PA, I’m sure you found it as moving as I did. I didn’t expect to be as affected as I was; but walking on the path the plane took and reaching the viewing platform I was struck by the beauty of the place. It was hillier than I had imagined, breezy, and beautiful. I could smell summer in the air, and the wildflower scent carried on the wind.

That such obscene and inhumane ugliness could happen in such a place really affected me and I felt nothing but sadness. I heard my friend Yuval say quietly, “beautiful, very respectful,” and we spoke about the tragedy that took place there as well as others he had lived through in his native Israel, where, sadly, such things had happened more often.

 

Out on that platform overlooking the crash site I had a sense that everyone felt a similar sadness and so the smiles among strangers came easily. Everyone spoke softly, respectfully, conscious that this was a place to share and process grief for people none of us had known but whom we nonetheless hurt for. Sometimes just being in the presence of others feeling the same confusing rush of emotions is a great comfort. That’s certainly how it was for me.

When we rolled out on that bright, cloudless day, I was happy to be with our group but also thankful to have the silence inside my helmet for a while to make the transition from sadness back to the joy of the ride. I was glad to have visited the memorial and rode away moved but grateful for the day, the weather, the trip, that evening’s dinner with new friends. I felt eager to experience whatever came my way. Visiting a scene of such tragedy has a way of inviting joy, or at least making you appreciate life in a way few other things can.

A few hours later we passed an idyllic, calm lake, so we stopped for a break. It didn’t take long for us to agree that a swim was in order, so (with consent from our female companion whom we didn’t wish to offend) we stripped down and jumped in to cool off, scaring away a pair of fishermen in the process. After a few photos and some time to dry off we hit the road again.

Miles later and with a storm closing in on us, our GPS systems failed one by one. One failed to charge and the others routed us in circles. As the storm engulfed us we took refuge under a bridge for the 10 minutes it took to pass and for the sun to return. Then we were off again to find our way back home. What made this ride memorable was the range of situations and emotions the five of us (who for the most part had never met each other until that day) experienced together. We went from the excited anticipation of a day of riding, to sadness at the memorial, to quiet reflection, to the childlike joy of jumping into a lake, to getting lost and caught in a storm.

The ride reminded me of why we do this; why we ride firstly and why we seek out others to ride with secondly. It occurred to me that two things are most certainly better when shared: sadness and joy. One is to be divided, and the other to be multiplied.

 

You can never prepare for what may come your way during any ride, but that’s part of the fun. On some you find out more about yourself, on others more about those you’re riding with. Mr. Twain was right, but his sentiment can be extended. Whatever you experience in life, be it sadness or joy, is always better when shared.

 

The Head-to-Toe Beginner’s Guide to Motorcycle Gear

(CC0 License – Public Domain)

There’s a lot for new motorcycle riders to be excited about: learning how to ride, choosing a first motorcycle, and finally hitting the road and experiencing one’s surroundings as they can only be experienced from the back of a bike.

But as exciting as all of this is, it’s also serious business, and there’s more to getting started than just getting licensed and buying a new bike. Being properly outfitted in protective motorcycle gear is as crucial to motorcycle safety as proper training.

If you’re a beginning motorcyclist looking for some guidance on getting properly outfitted to ride, the following rundown should give you everything you need to get started finding the gear you need to ride in safety and comfort.

The Helmet

Helmets are undoubtedly the most important piece of safety gear any motorcyclist can wear. Even a minor fall off of a motorcycle can result in a serious head injury if the rider isn’t wearing a helmet, to say nothing of more serious accidents. Here are the basics of what to look for in a motorcycle helmet:

  • DOT Certification: The U.S. Department of Transportation has a specific standard for motorcycle helmets (the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard no. 218), which outlines minimum performance ratings for metrics like impact absorption. Motorcycle helmets that meet this standard will feature a DOT sticker on the back or inside; don’t buy a helmet without this sticker.
  • Fit & Retention: A motorcycle helmet should fit snugly, but without being so tight that it’s uncomfortable. This will prevent the helmet from coming off or under-performing in an accident. Here’s a good basic test when finding a good fit: securely strap on the helmet and, gripping it from the back, try to pull it off over your head. With a helmet that fits properly, you won’t be able to.
  • Comfort: Discomfort is distracting, and no one wants to be distracted while they’re riding.
  • Style: Fashion should probably be the least of anyone’s concerns when shopping for a motorcycle helmet, but there are some choices when it comes to style. Full-face, open face, motocross, and half-helmets are all options. Full-face models offer the best protection, but many riders prefer open-face or half-helmets for comfort reasons.

The Jacket

What helmets do for your head, a good jacket does for your arms, shoulders, and torso. There are a lot of options when it comes to jackets, and it’s important to know what to look for.

  • Leather vs. Textile: A high-quality leather motorcycle jacket is about more than just looking cool. Leather offers excellent abrasion resistance, but might not be the best option for shock absorption. Many modern textile jackets are made from materials like Cordura or Kevlar, which also provide protection against abrasions, and are often a lot cooler than leather in warmer weather.
  • Armor: Armor and textile jackets are both available with built-in body armor to protect against falls. At minimum, look for a jacket with armor in the shoulders, back, and elbows with at least a “CE” safety rating.
  • Fit: A good motorcycle jacket should fit snugly without restricting movement. When trying on a motorcycle jacket, zip it up completely and try to approximate the position you take on your bike. If it’s too snug in the arms and shoulder to hold comfortably in the store, you can be it will be too snug on the road.

The Pants

Motorcycle pants protect your lower extremities from abrasions and impacts – shins, knees, hips, and bottom are all dependent on good motorcycle pants in a fall. Here are some of the most common options for motorcycle pants.

  • Leather: Leather pants, like jackets, offer superior abrasion resistance. However they’re often relatively uncomfortable, especially in warm weather. Most leather pants lack additional armor.
  • Textile: Textile riding pants are made with abrasion-resistant materials like Kevlar, and more often feature built-in-armor in high-impact areas like the knees and hips. As with jackets, these often feature better breathability than leather. Many manufacturers also make Kevlar and armor-reinforced denim jeans that strike a balance between style and safety.
  • Overpants: For commuters and others who don’t want to get to their destination with just armored riding pants, motorcycle over-pants are armored, abrasion-resistant pants designed to be worn over regular street clothes or denim motorcycle jeans.

The Boots

Footwear might not be as important for safety as a helmet or jacket, but it is a concern. Motorcycle boots provide protection to the ankle, shin, toes, and sole in the event of a crash, as well as offering improved grip and comfort on long rides when compared to normal street shoes. Here are some of the most common options for motorcycle boots.

  • Touring Boots: Touring boots are probably the most popular style of motorcycle boot. Generally tall to provide ankle support and shin protection, these boots are designed for commuting and long rides.
  • Short Boots: While not as protective in most cases as touring boots, short boots are often more comfortable, and offer a sneaker-like style and fit without completely sacrificing safety.
  • Cruiser Boots: Cruiser boots are heavy-duty boots designed for long rides on v-twin cruiser-style bikes. Heights vary, but typically cruiser boots offer great grip and superb protection against impacts and abrasions.

At the end of the day, the best motorcycle gear for you is what you’re most comfortable in – provided it offers at least a minimum amount of protection. Those just beginning will need some time to find out just what that is, but that’s all a part of the fun.

Teammates Old and New

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DeSales University Hall of Fame Class of 2016

The article “Teammates Old and New” by Bud Miller/Zen Motorcyclist was originally published on the “RoadRUNNER Motorcycle Touring & Travel” magazine website on 11/25/16.

A few weeks ago I received an email from the athletic department of DeSales University, which I graduated from with a degree in mathematics way back in 1987. I was to be inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame at a banquet in late September during alumni weekend. The news came as quite a surprise given that nearly 30 years have passed since my graduation. I ran cross-country while at DeSales and achieved some success that helped (along with the efforts of many others) establish the foundations of a program that has since become a force to be reckoned with. I am honored to have been selected, and it got me thinking about my team and the times I spent running in the woods around that idyllic Center Valley, PA, campus.

Initially, I was a bit melancholy at the thought that it was the last team I was ever on. After graduation I ran other races and dabbled in biathlons and triathlons, mud runs, rock climbing, and fun runs, but never again had that sense of team that I’d had during my college days. I missed the shared activity and nervous excitement of a long training run or upcoming meet, missed the elation after winning as a team, each doing his part and getting the job done as a unit. But then I thought about motorcycling and the ways it has given me back some of what I miss about my college running days.

When you’re on a team with someone, especially a team centered around running, you spend a lot of time side by side clocking countless miles (I calculated having ran a minimum of 6,000 over the four years I spent at DeSales) talking about life and love and, in our case, some tragic losses. You become more than just teammates and often forge bonds that last the rest of your life, which is certainly true for me.

It is the same with motorcycling. I ran a riding group with nearly 200 members for a few years and while I did I realized I felt many (more…)

Riding Your First Motorcycle

vulcan-900Many people, men and women alike, believe that motorcycles are easy to handle. After all, most of us mastered a bicycle by the age of eight and like a bicycle, motorcycles have two wheels as well. How difficult can they really be to manage on the road? The average person can get a bicycle up to around 30 mph on a flat surface. A pro cyclist can get to around 50 mph. A motorcycle can go from zero to more than 60 mph in under 4 seconds. That’s a steep increase over a bicycle, and one that should be your first clue that riding a motorcycle is going to take quite a bit of practice to get right.

If you are in the market for your first motorcycle or you know, as many riders do, that your life will be enriched through the travel options that owning a motorcycle will bring, you should take a few things into consideration before making your purchase and before hopping on the seat to take it for a spin. A motorcycle does not come equipped with an airbag or safety features like an automobile, and until you have been through some training, you simply do not want to just “hop on” and try to ride away into the sunset. A simple mistake when driving a car may end with a small scratch or even a slight fender dent. Making a mistake on a motorcycle can end your life. Be aware though that while riding a motorcycle is often thought to be dangerous, so are many other things in life and you can control the danger level by gaining experience and learning to be safe.

Before you ride your first bike, you may want to consider taking a motorcycle safety course with the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) as they offer safety courses nationwide for motorcycle owners and those interested in riding. Taking a course is not mandatory, but (more…)

To Feel Normal Again (Full Text)

The article “To Feel Normal Again” by Bud Miller/Zen Motorcyclist was originally published on the “RoadRUNNER Motorcycle Touring & Travel” magazine website on 05/03/16.

I believe that half the trouble in the world comes from people asking ‘What have I achieved?’ rather than ‘What have I enjoyed?‘”

Walter Farley, author of The Black Stallion

I’ve always loved movies with first-person narration, one character telling a story and his thoughts about the events. I’ve quoted The Shawshank Redemption before and recently watched it again during the El Niño-inspired storm of the decade here in southeastern Pennsylvania. A favorite scene is the one in which the main character, Andy, negotiates for his crew to receive three beers each in return for some accounting work done for a guard. When others question Andy’s motives, the narrator says, “. . . me, I think he did it to feel normal again, if only for a short while.”

Winter RideThe analogy stuck with me, as so many things do, and I thought about riding and the places it takes me that have nothing to do with the stuff of daily life. Normal, for me, is that space where I am one with the task at hand and thinking of nothing else, and that’s certainly true of riding. Normal is the place where (more…)

Weather On The Go

wbNow ScreenIf you’re anything like me you ride often, whether weekend day trips, daily commuting or extended multi-day trips. I commute in southeastern Pennsylvania throughout the year which means I ride in all types of weather, rain, occasionally snow, fog, high winds. Now on weekend rides or day trips that’s fine; but one thing I don’t do is commute in bad weather. My work occasionally involves being outside and I prefer not to have to deal with inclement weather on work days and the requisite clothing considerations that entails. With that in mind I’ve been using the WeatherBug weather app for a while now and with good results.

The widget on my Galaxy S5 (which I refer to often without ever needing to open the app) is unobtrusive and (more…)