Head Shake – Basement Epiphany

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

—David Foster Wallace, 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College

I just had an awakening of sorts in my basement while taking stock of old crashed helmets. I was sorting through some shim tools and shims that I had neglected to put away and glanced up at my old lids, most battered in places like Pocono, Rockingham, Summit Point, and elsewhere, their tech stickers and scars attesting to past efforts, some successful, some not. I’ve wanted to make a floor lamp out of them, stack them one atop another and run a pole through them with a lamp on top with an old FZR wheel for a base. Every winter I have intended to do so, and every spring arrives with my old helmets still lining the shelves in the basement, dust covered and unmolested.

There are few distractions for me down in the basement, and my mind can wander without domestic interruptions. The Daytona 200 had just run, untelevised again though it was live streamed, and as it has in recent years, it always gets me geezing about all manner of lamentable things most all of which boil down to the future of motorcycling, where we are going, and what that future might hold. I don’t really enjoy my company when I get like that, so I go down to the basement and do things like sort shims until it passes.

Except this time it didn’t pass. This time I realized that in asking the same old questions and reverting back to my same old answers, maybe I had been missing something. This is not a new feeling. It hadn’t been too long since I had read the interview our E-i-C Kevin Duke had conducted with BMW’s Group’s Peter Schwarzenbauer and what he had to say stirred that unease.

The Future of Motorcycling According to BMW

“If we would be able to offer a bike that is so safe that you don’t need a helmet, you don’t need the gear stuff you have to wear, you can ride it and there is no way you are going to have an accident with this bike, then I think we are going to address a lot more people on a motorcycle than we are doing now. That’s the ultimate goal: riding without any fear of having an accident on a bike,” said Schwarzenbauer.

Shim tools

My wife stares at a mandala from her yoga mat, I’m not sure but I think it focuses her thought; To aid my focus, I stare at shim tools and shims.

Schwarzenbauer had a vision of the future that I have summarily dismissed in a fashion that has become routine for me whenever I encounter the suggestion that the future of motorcycling lies in technology, in advances that will open the activity to a broader audience. I have always been concerned that such advances may fundamentally alter what motorcycling is, and not for the better.

But each year the Boomer generation that spurred the industry forward in the late ’60s and ’70s gets older. I first took notice of this back in the ’90s in the Motorcycle Industry Council’s Statistical Annuals that we received every year. Despite the increasing number of women riders who slowed the climb somewhat, the inevitable trend was clear; motorcyclists were getting older. If demographics were destiny, the nicest people you used to meet on a Honda you will increasingly meet in a nursing home. This was not my epiphany; this is old news.

I have also long voiced concerns over the extent to which growing ride-by-wire technology might supplant what had been traditional rider roles in motorcycling. Wondering where the line is between a motorcycle and a motorcycle simulator. The satisfaction that comes with mastering a complex task that has some inherent risks might be displaced by the dumbing down of those tasks, albeit with a broader safety margin that would accompany those sorts of changes.

Sliding a bike is fun, sliding a bike is also a good way to lowside and perhaps highside. Somewhere between a TZ750 and a fully autonomous motorcycle that line lurks, and it spooks me. But simultaneously I have always felt a little guilty that much of my reluctance to embrace all things new may be nothing but the knee-jerk “get off my grass” reaction of a guy too shortsighted and set in his ways to see the future. I couldn’t help but feel I was missing something. Maybe the answer to everything was not a direct-injected two-stroke.

My cavalier floor lamp idea and Schwarzenbauer’s simple truths woke me to the fact of something I’ve just come to accept as reality over the years, that motorcycling has – to by definition – entail risk. Standing there staring at a lifetime of wadded helmets, it was plain as day. I was in David Foster Wallace’s fish bowl, Peter Schwarzenbauer just swam by wishing me a good day and asked me how the water was, and my response for all these years has been, “What the hell is water?”

It’s plain as the rashed helmets on my shelf. It’s fear, it’s risk. How many times have I heard “I’d love to ride but” out of a prospective rider… Fill in the blank: my parents, my wife, my husband, my work, the kids, responsibilities – all excuses not to buy a bike, not to ride, and all motivated by fear, all generated by perceived and actual risk. And for years I have discounted that risk because I’ve grown so accustomed to it. Hell, I want to make a floor lamp out of it.

The simple fact of the matter is I have been too quick to dismiss the growing belief, spurred on by technological advances, that the future of motorcycling may just lie in doing what I have been so averse to, namely altering the nature of motorcycling and changing the relationship between the rider and the ride. Schwarzenbauer spelled it out in the interview linked above, but that vision is in there. And rather than recoil from it, maybe I – we – ought to embrace it.

This is not the mind of a motorcycle visionary; this is the mind of a Snell test-dummy interior decorator

This is not the mind of a motorcycle visionary; this is the mind of a Snell test-dummy interior decorator

“On the contrary, I think the riding experience will be even more exciting because all of sudden, even if you are not a professional rider, you are going to experience a really exciting riding sensation because the bike is so capable. I think it will add a lot of people who currently don’t think about being on a motorbike because they think it’s too dangerous. If you can show that there is no danger whatsoever, you can just have fun with it, you’ll see a lot more people doing it.”

I visited the Galapagos a few years back. Every island I stepped foot on was populated by creatures that were unafraid; they had no natural predators and they acted like it. It was how I would imagine the Garden of Eden, a largely benevolent world free from most risk. Schwarzenbauer is suggesting their engineers can create such a place for road-going humans, riding through our asphalt Eden bareheaded in our birthday suits if we want, absent malevolent cars and trucks, and with bikes that will stay upright of their own accord.

“Due to the lack of natural predators, the wildlife in the Galápagos is known for being extremely tame without instinctual fear,” says that source of all things mostly factual, Wikipedia.

“Just imagine a fully autonomous world and we all ride around in rubber cars,” says BMW’s visionary, Schwarzenbauer. “I mean, what do you want to do on the weekend? You go out on a bike and have fun! So motorcycling will be an important part on the leisure side.”

And it is probably high time the guy who collects floor lamp building materials from places longtime Rider Files chronicler Larry Lawrence describes as, “…tracks like Rockingham means that the riders of that era were some of the bravest (or craziest) ever. Today’s riders would never even consider racing on a track like this and rightly so.” I accept the fact that my crazy may have blinded me to the wisdom of what folks like Schwarzenbauer have been saying.

Larry is looking back at the tracks that produced my helmet collection – and my mind set – and speaking of today’s riders. Schwarzenbauer is addressing the risks presented to the riders of today, and speaking of tomorrow. And if Schwarzenbauer is right, and the engineers can pull it off, the future could look very bright indeed.

Until then, ride hard, look where you want to go, and when in doubt, gas it.


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