By Bob Sorokanich
Writer, editor, storyteller; former deputy editor of Road & Track Magazine
For 20 years, I had a license to drive a car, but not to ride a motorcycle. I’d always been intrigued by bikes. Growing up car-obsessed, you can’t help picking up chatter from the two-wheeled side of the fence. Half your car friends end up being bike nuts. The other half think the whole idea is nuts.
When I was working as an editor at Road & Track, America’s oldest car-enthusiast magazine, a coworker and some mutual friends planned a motorcycle trip up the California coast, then goaded me into joining them. I have the best kinds of friends: Motorcycle zealots eager to share their passion with new converts. They fast-tracked me into head-to-toe safety gear and a two-day Motorcycle Safety Foundation licensing course before I had a chance to find excuses. I wrote all about it for R&T.
That trip happened in the fall of 2019. We all know what happened in 2020. Two weeks of seemingly overcautious work-from-home turned into an entire summer of waiting for normal to return. I live in New York City, a place whose entire appeal is minimal social distance. My commute shrank to the walk from my bed to my coffee table. Friends met up for drinks in slapped-together shacks on the curbs outside our favorite bars. Everyone was improvising, looking for new ways to evoke old feelings.
So I finally bought a bike, a brand-new Royal Enfield Continental GT 650. Classic cafe-racer style, modern enough not to worry. I blew the dust off my helmet and armor, whizzed through a one-day MSF refresher course, and hit the road on a bike of my very own. I was 35 years old.
Riding in New York City isn’t quite as idyllic as that first coastal California jaunt. My favorite country roads are an hour’s ride away from my apartment. Puttering around on the city grid during sunlight hours can feel like gasoline-fueled purgatory, a numbing repetition: First gear, second gear, stop, and wait.
So I ride after dark. Sliding into my gear for a late-night jaunt feels like a sacred ritual, a signal to my mind to put away the day’s worries. The pavement is cool, traffic is calm. I might catch a half-dozen green lights in a row.
That first year of riding, I focused on practicing the essentials. My clunky shifts and jerky braking got smoother. I learned to keep my eyes up, scanning the road far ahead, trusting my peripheral vision and looking to where I want to go. As I got more confident, my rides grew longer, escaping the right-angles of the city for meandering suburbia and the occasional two-lane country road.
Somewhere along the way, I got a handlebar mount for my smartphone, but I’ve never installed it. My motorcycle is just about the only place left where nobody can reach me, where my thoughts are never hijacked by an incoming email.
In a way, motorcycling is completely different from how I imagined it. When you’ve never ridden a bike, your body doesn’t know the feeling of engine heat sizzling the back of your thighs. You don’t comprehend the vibration of the handlebars, the view through shaky mirrors. You’ve never considered how the crown of the road can push you the wrong way when you least expect it.
But you’ve also never felt how the air around you gets cooler at the bottom of a shady hill. You’ve never smelled the wildflowers at the edge of a highway on-ramp, too scanty to register to a passenger in a two-ton car. You’ve never known the primal satisfaction of glass-smooth shifting as you work your way through the gears, knowing that your clutch, throttle, and shifting coordination is starting to become second nature.
These sensations make my life better on a daily basis. My only regret is that I didn’t find them sooner.