He loves motion. Moreover, he loves being in control of the motion. Always has.
His mother, she knows. Predicts. He’s going to do it either way. Maybe it would be better if he got his foundation under the watchful eye of a parent.
“Hear me out,” she says. “I think I should pull the sidecar off the Triumph. He can learn to ride on that.”
She isn’t convinced it’s a great idea. Motorcycles are dangerous. But she trusts me. She feels I’m her best bet to keep her favorite investment safe. I agree. She makes him do the work.
He asks me to hold the bike steady as he works out the last bolt. That’s the deal with auto work, right? It’s all easy, except it isn’t. Oh, sure, just remove this and attach that, but that first step—remove—that’s the part we all take for granted. Everything sticks. Hard. Still, he manages. He’s pretty motivated.
He’s ridden dirt bikes, so he knows how a two-wheeled vehicle works. He drives a stick, so he knows how to control a manual transmission. The only thing new is the reality of operating a street bike in traffic. Well, that’s a bit of a larger step.
Can he do it? I have no doubt. Well, I have little doubt, how about that? I know he can and will, but can he do it unscathed? If he dumps that bike, it’s going to be a mountain to get over. Not for me or his mother—well, maybe his mother—but mostly for him. It’ll get into his head.
He disappears around the turn. We’re on the back streets behind our house. Perfectly legal. He went and got his M-Class learner’s permit a couple weeks ago, thinking I’d just let him go buy a bike. Look, I’m not the most traditional father, I’ll grant that, but come on—there are limits. No, he can’t just go buy a bike. He’ll begin learning with me.
As the seconds tick away, I wait for him to come back into sight. There he is. So skinny. The coolest kid I’ve ever met, astride a green and cream cafe racer adorned with gold trim. I’m not jealous of much, but I’d trade adolescent experiences with him. He’s got it pretty good.
He keeps looping until he feels right about it. It’s why I don’t worry too much about him. He’s only 17, but he’s always had a pretty good self-preservation gear. He won’t get in too far over his own head.
We get ready to leave the safe confines of our residential streets and I remind him that the bike isn’t going to fall over. That’s what every new rider thinks. They worry about balance. Wrong place to worry. Don’t concern yourself with tipping—worry about making turns. I tell him about countersteering. To pretend like there’s a string on each grip, pulling on the string leans the bike in that direction, making it turn. Although, you aren’t pulling, you’re pushing against the handlebars. To turn right you push against the right grip. Left, against the left. It’s counterintuitive, but it’s just how it works.
On a motorcycle, you don’t fix a problem with brakes. You fix it with gasoline. If you need to get out of a situation, apply more throttle. Just like countersteering, it’s not exactly intuitive. It’s just how it works.
We head out for real. Streets and traffic. A two-lane highway through the woods. You want to ride? Well, then we’ll ride. I roll on my throttle and watch the speedometer climb up over 70 mph. Watching my mirrors, he’s there. A little back, but catching up. Rolling through turns. Staying in his lane. Just like that—look who knows how to ride a motorcycle.
“Can we ride today?”
Of course. I don’t think I’ll ever say no to that question. It’s the next day. He wants to put in time. Hours in the saddle so he gets his turns a little tighter. I tell him we can ride every day.
He’s not in the mood for a bunch of clutch work. It’ll build your left forearm, that’s for sure. Strengthen the grip of your non-handshake hand. Instead, we opt for another country road. This area is polluted with them. It’s one of my favorite things about where we live.
Yet another day, he wants to practice riding. He wants to go to parking lots and work on slow speed maneuvers. He wants to head out nearly every day just trying to get better at piloting a full-size bike. He wants to be good.
And, honestly, he’s pretty good. How can a 17 year old kid with no real training be good?
“Weren’t you only 16 when you just hopped on a bike and took to the streets,” my wife asked? “At least he has you.”
She’s not wrong. I forget about my brother’s Kawasaki 650. How did I not kill myself on that thing? I’d just throw my leg over and go ride. The only part I even worried about was not stalling. Backroads on a Saturday morning. Nighttime flying up a highway in the dark. No license. No understanding. No fear.
So, yeah, he is doing this better than I did.
Plus, he’s been on the back of a bike since he was six years old. Your legs have to be long enough to reach the pegs. That’s the house rule. The summer of 2006, he fit, so we went and bought him a helmet. He already had the leather jacket.
We’d head out together and it was probably more fun for me than him. I loved having him back there. He was safe. He was comfortable. A little too comfortable. We’d be riding and I’d feel him go slack against me—fast asleep on the back of a bike rolling down the street. I’d pull over, wake him up and we’d walk it off. We started taking shorter rides.
“You know, you’d think the threat of death would be enough to keep you awake. All you need to do is look down at the road flying by you if you need a reminder.”
Talk about no fear.
One of our favorite motorcycle things to do was to get up and ride to breakfast. We’d gear up together, then hit one of the local chain diners—pancakes with strawberries, chocolate chips and whipped cream for him. Eggs and sausage for me.
We’d walk in clad in leather jackets and carrying our helmets and all the other early birds knew exactly our story and found him to be as cute as he really was. Completely adorable.
He and I would finish our milk and coffee, respectively, then get chatted up by the patrons as we walked past tables back toward our bike. He never thought anything of it, but I found the attention sort of validating. I was giving him something a lot of other kids didn’t get. A unique experience. A special kind of Jake and Dad time.
Now we do it again, but with a twist. “You want to head out tomorrow for breakfast?” He does. “25, 35 or 45,” I ask? Meaning minutes. Length of the ride. “It doesn’t matter,” he says. “You pick.”
The sun rises, I get him up and we leather up. It’s autumn. My favorite time to ride. But, lately it’s been atypically warm. It’s not too hot today, nor is it chilly. It’s a perfect morning.
We head toward my old hometown. There’s this place that has housed restaurant after restaurant over the span of my lifetime. I get it. I run a few businesses. It’s hard. But I can’t even imagine running a restaurant. The business model feels almost impossible to make a success.
We pull in and history has proven true yet again. Closed. Out of business. Another restaurant shuttered.
Our ride was pleasant. Uneventful. I spent far more time watching him in my mirrors than necessary. We hit turns at a good rate of speed and he pushed that Bonneville right through them as if he’d been riding for decades. Earlier I had told him, “If we’re going through a turn and you need to get tighter, push that bar. That bike as a lot more turn in it than you think.”
It’s good knowledge to have. Not much later we did enter a turn and I was the perfectly bad combination of going a little too fast and paying attention to my mirrors instead of the road.
I pushed on the bars, leaned the bike and ground my floorboards the entire way through the curve.
Post-gaming over breakfast he says, “I saw that! Your bike was leaned over so far.”
So, yes, we did find another diner nearby. He’s young, thus afforded the luxury of a massive plate of carbohydrates—biscuits in sausage gravy and a mountain of hash browns. Me, I need to be a bit more disciplined. I’m sticking with eggs over easy. “Dippy eggs,” the waitress confirms? Yes, thank you. Only in western PA.
Plates empty, bill paid and back at our bikes, we suit up yet again and head home via a different route. After winding down the mountain, we pass a playground where a young father is pushing his son on a swing. Those days are so far away from me that I feel the tiny tug of nostalgia. Then I mentally wish those two well on their journey together. I hope someday they get their equivalent of a Saturday morning ride for breakfast together.