I’ve never done anything half-way. When I started riding I really wanted to get proficient, safe and comfortable with it as soon as possible. As I began racking up miles under my bikes I found that it gave me pleasures and satisfaction that I had never received in any car. The complete isolation from the outside world while being immediately in it presented a contrast that I never had driving a cage, where the radio was blaring, the air conditioning was on, the phone would ring, or my passengers would be talking to me.
The bike gives me the sensations without insulation. Riding through farmlands I can smell the onions ready for harvest. The smell of brakes alert me to big trucks ahead on downhill grades. The vibration of the engine and the road feedback tells me what my machine is doing at any given time. Where a car is insulated, the forces of cornering, braking, etc., more violent, everything on the motorcycle is there, and movement is smooth and flows with the physics of your motions and body.
So it’s the end of September, and I’ve been on two wheels for 9 months, and covered 25,000 miles in that time. There’s been a few close calls, some stupid “weasel attacks” and miles of enjoyment. Getting to this many miles required some dedication, but living in Northridge and spending 4 months commuting 90 miles per day, then later 160 miles per day to Santa Barbara and back, really meant that I just needed to choose to ride all the time. And I did just that.
What I Learned
First, I learned that commuting on a bike is an acquired skill. It’s not something that you’re going to be good at right away — you need to take it easy and work your way into it. I started by taking back roads to work, to build muscle memory as I began to work the controls of the machine, and understand its limitations in different scenarios. I began to venture on and off the freeways after a week or two, just short stints in areas that I knew were not congested. Finally I began to ride my “normal” route that was mostly freeway.
In retrospect, I had much less control over my bike when I first started riding. To build confidence, I would purposely stay late and come in early so that I had less traffic to deal with. I would practice avoiding objects in my path by maneuvering around spots on the road as I came upon them. Looking back, it was good practice. It is more of a skill than one would imagine, and I feel much more confident about avoidance than I ever did 4-5 months ago.
I’ve changed my equipment as I’ve become better, partly because I just plain wore stuff out, often I wanted to try other items, and partially because I found better, safer and more armored items. I bought a lighter and more expensive helmet (Shoei RF1000) that is, in my opinion, fabulous. I now have a set of Held Phantom Gloves that were expensive but worth every nickel, and finally I scored a Dianese Spine Protector for my jacket. Sheila, my wife, doesn’t make a peep about more protection, and she’s been incredibly supportive of my new obsession.
My riding technique has improved dramatically. I always used the counter-steering methods, but developed better, more efficient movements over time. When I first started my Eldorado daily, the wind blast had me “pulling right to go left” instead of “pushing left to go left” to affect a counter steer. As I rode more, I adjusted my technique so that the pushing became more natural. Both achieved the same counter-steering effect, effectively moving the handlebars correctly, but the “natural” action of pushing the bars in the direction of the turn was a skill that took adjustment.
Gear selection also changed. During the earlier miles, I would often gear down to “match the speed” of the engine to the speed of the bike and let the engine act as a brake. After reading Keith Code’s “A Twist of the Wrist”, I no longer do this, relying on braking and only engaging the gears when I’m ready to accelerate from a braking situation. The technique has improved my riding, although I still use the Guzzi’s engine to slow in some situations, because of it’s less-than-ideal brakes.
It’s funny, but I’ve learned to profile drivers and their ability to do stupid stuff and try to kill me often by the way that small movements on the road occur. I look into windows to see what the driver’s head is doing; what they are looking at or paying attention to. Large trucks, service trucks, Commercial Vehicles, SUVs, etc all have different general movement characteristics when traveling, and spotting these patterns is key to avoiding unfortunate situations.
I also believe that it is good to have more space between cars and you, especially from behind and the sides where you have little control to react. You can see a car in front of you and anticipate what may happen much easier than one from the side or behind, especially since to view and digest the situation fully requires multiple looks where you might have to take your eyes away from your front several times.
Ride with others, but make each ride your ride, not some catch-up or show off game. You’ll get more respect in your community by riding within your limits, learning from others and not being afraid to be the tail-end charlie. Help others that are less experienced and pay your learnings forward with grace, and when the need to jump ahead of the pack arises, do so with discretion and enjoy in moderation. Nobody likes picking up their friends from a shunt.
I am so very glad that I bought my Moto Guzzi Eldorado as my first bike. It has only 45hp or so, and represents the best in technology from 36 years ago. The brakes are cable-operated drums, and with respect to modern discs, you need to make reservations waaaay ahead to stop. It is under-braked, but this deficiency made me a better rider because one must live within these limitations and remain aware of the fact that stopping is something that must be planned.
What makes this Guzzi amazing though is the balance of the bike. It just handles so well. The low speed maneuverability is delightful; you can literally lock the handlebars and ride in a circle. It is great for going distances (I’ve traveled more than 1500 miles cross country over 3 days on it) and has a style that is unbeatable. As far as reliability goes, well, I’ve ridden it 13,000 miles in the last nine months with little more than regular maintenance, which is easy. The parts, support and community surrounding these bikes is something that guarantees that I’ll always own one.
Then there’s my 2001 Ducati ST2. The Eldorado is like a P-47. Big, fast for it’s time, tough and charismatic. The Duc is all business. It’s an F-18. You can ride it and ride it. Nothing goes wrong. Dealer support from Pro Italia in Glendale and Wilson’s in Fresno has been spectacular. In 3 months I’ve put 12,000 miles on it, and the only thing I’ve done is replace a chain, a set of tires and a single valve adjustment service.
The Duc’s headlight just sucks. Not a great night bike, although for $500 a company called Ducati Designs will solve that problem. It also has a funky flat spot around 3900 rpm that a chip from FIM will fix. I have the aftermarket Corbin seat that I understand is almost necessary. But it’s godawful fast, brakes like the dickens and takes an amazing lean. No vices at all above 20mph except for the fact that you really want to go fast on it. I would NOT recommend it as a first bike, and I’m glad that I had 10000 miles under me before I bought it.
Which brings me to the “under” 20mph vices. I call them the “weasels”. My ST2 doesn’t want to go slow, which has caused me to drop it three times as I’ve come to a stop or pulled away. Just stupid stuff, that once learned, you’ll never do again:
- Gas stations have lots of painted areas that can get greasy. If you’re riding slowly over a spot with your front wheel turned, expect the bike to come out from under you.
- When you first get the bike, remember that it’s got a much higher CG than that Guzzi you normally ride on. I had less than 5mi on it, pulled up to the MacDonald’s where I was to meet my wife to take it home, and immediately dropped it in front of her and everyone inside as I pulled up. Just plain forgot to put my feet down. The Guzzi would stay up, but not so much the Ducati.
- Lots of front brake on soft shoulders will cause bikes like this to dump. Ask me how I know.
All these small dumps put a few scratches on the mirrors and one annoying one on a bag, but Colorite makes a touch up for it, and I keep plenty on hand. Plus, I am MUCH more careful at low speeds now. Hey, I knew I was going to drop the bike and get some scratches on it. I also know that I will be maintaining this bike and making sure that no maintenance is deferred. If I ever decide to sell it, the next owner will get a bike with a few scratches that will last him another 40K miles with few headaches.
Advice to Pass On
Do it. Be aware that it’s dangerous, but get trained, get the best equipment than you can afford, and get experience. Don’t do Stupid Stuff. You’ll know exactly what this is if you are doing something that you think might be past your skill level or overly dangerous, or even worse, a voice inside your head says something like, “if I’m not lucky that guy is going to come into my lane and…”.
And for the official, completely biased and also non-compensated spokesman pitch, get a Guzzi. There are a lot of great bikes out there and I’m sure that you have your favorites, but you should at least consider this bike, especially if you’re a person in your late 40’s looking for something to challenge you, keep you engaged and have a community of people that are a blast to be around. Guzzi people are just that — non-threatening, helpful to newbies and mature. The bikes that Guzzi makes are incredibly forgiving, reliable and super-easy to ride and be on for long distances. The only caveat is there are not as many dealers as one would like, but frankly the bikes just don’t break that much, and they are super easy to turn your own wrench on when you do. I’ve had Guzzi Specialists actually walk me through procedures on my bike instead of telling me to “bring it in”. No money to them, but intense loyalty for later and a great sense of community. Try that with other brands!
The pitch is almost over. If’ you’re new and want a newer bike, get the Breva 750. I’ve ridden it and it may be the best beginner bike available anywhere. They also will be introducing a new bike, the V7 Classic (available in europe already), next winter. It’s a “standard” bike like the Triumph Bonneville, but smaller in engine capacity and I would imagine a great around-town bike.
Whatever you choose, I hope you have the same wonderful experiences that I’ve had. I continue to ride every day, continue to enjoy and explore the ride and increase my skills, and the friends that I’ve made will last a lifetime. I’d like to add a dual-sport bike to my stable and possibly another, newer-Guzzi as well. I’m planning a longer, cross-country trip soon for the fall. I’m hoping to get my wife on two wheels next year, and I’d love to take a motorcycle touring trip to another spot in the world at some point in the future.