The fastest man alive clocks speeds upwards of twenty-seven miles per hour. On a motorcycle, with a twist of the throttle, anyone can experience that same exhilaration in just first gear.
An inherently individual activity though, motorcycling demands total self-reliance. When a tire blows on a busy interstate or a clutch snaps on a rural highway, you’re on your own. But by mastering risk, by taking ownership of danger, one earns a unique freedom.
Unlike a passive automobile, a motorcycle offers an active experience. The motorcyclist does not steer; he maintains complete control. He does not go fast; he summons speed. Like being shot from a cannon, it’s the closest thing to taking flight.
Exciting at any speed, these motorcycles are the ultimate do-it-yourself projects. Sadly, the mechanical competence required is now a quickly disappearing virtue. It’s gotten so bad that Slate recently released a new series designed to explain the most perplexing mechanical mysteries. With these videos, yuppie elites can finally learn to use jumper cables or remember which side the gas tank is on. It’s pathetic.
But while few millenials can tear open an engine today, far too many curmudgeons offer the same critique. Supposedly by outsourcing responsibility, we’ve lost all mechanical ability. Apparently, we’re as capable of changing our oil, as we are of taking charge of our lives. Obviously, the millennial mindset maintains that something broken must be someone else’s problem.
And honestly there’s something to this critique.
Back when sex was easy, drugs were cheap, and rock n’ roll was still good, mechanical literacy was a prerequisite to freedom. Flower power wasn’t enough to fix that van broken down by the river. Before sticking it to the man, boomers had to maintain their own cars and bikes.
Today though, thanks to better-built automobiles and new technologies like Uber, my generation simply gets up and goes. But under the surface, there’s a subtle renaissance of mechanical responsibility reemerging.
Sporting ugly flannels and outrageous mustaches, hipster mechanics have started rewarming the imperial and oriental engines of long dormant Enfield’s and Hondas. United by the web, this transcontinental community showcases bike builds and shares inspiration around the world.
Internet magazines, like Pipeburn and BikeExif, highlight the restoration of vintage bikes and the reimagination of modern classics. Dozens of boutique builders cobble together old parts into new creations. And a host of Internet forums help veteran mechanics advise rookie riders in garages everywhere.
All are united in an effort to restore old bikes and regain lost skills. And all maintain an inherently conservative consciousness.
To repair an engine is to confront an objective reality. A motorcycle won’t turn over because of a sense of entitlement. And misguided effort doesn’t earn a gold star—only a motorcycle that sputters and stalls. Instead, one has to acknowledge their own ignorance and take account of the facts. Only after shifting mental gears, can one begin the process of troubleshooting.
The summer after my freshman year, that was my experience. Overconfident and underprepared, I pulled a rusting eighties Kawasaki out of a neighbor’s barn. I could barely turn a wrench and predictably spent hours breaking more than I could fix.
But for the grace of my mechanics, and the mercy of their billing office, that motorcycle wouldn’t run today. Retired daredevils with beer bellies and families, they’d already experienced the problems I was just encountering. Little by little my generational ignorance lifted in proportion to my newfound humility. I listened, I learned, and finally I put that bike in riding condition after hours of listening and dozens of failed attempts.
Of course, regular maintenance and a few repairs never made me a postmodern Steve McQueen. But it has provided an avenue of honest introspection in a day when both educators coddle and elders chide millennials excessively. Because the motorcycle requires a constant exercise in self-evaluation, riding and repairing one can help my generation escape this suffocating binary. In short, it will make life a helluva lot cooler and worthwhile.
After all, one doesn’t need to be an Olympic caliber sprinter to experience speed and inspire awe. One needs only a motorcycle, and then perhaps your own kid to tell about the bike you had back in the day.