The old cliche is that in a car you are watching the movie, but on a motorcycle you are in the movie. Like most such sayings, it has some truth in it.

I spoke with a driver I respect who said that a particular road we both had experienced “wasn’t a driver’s road” and he explained that the curves weren’t tight enough or frequent enough to be challenging. With the kind of cars he drives, those wide sweepers could be taken easily at triple digits so the 45 mph speed limit on the stretch is soporific. I understood his observation and it caused me to think more about the difference in the way the two kinds of vehicles encounter the road surface and its curves.

Both motorcycles and cars, for that matter any moving machinery, represent a weight being asked to change directions. As Mr. Newton figured out, after being bonked on the head by that falling apple, a body in motion tends to stay in motion until acted upon by an outside force. Simplified for purposes of this exercise, that force is traction. Try turning your car or other vehicle at speed on ice and see how that works out for you.

The tires connecting the car to the road deliver the force making the car turn in response to the driver’s instructions, requiring it to go this way instead of that one. There are many complications to that interface, but suffice it to say that the flat rubber surface of the tire is clinging to the pavement despite the weight, the momentum, of the car trying to tear it loose as it wants to continue straight ahead instead of turning.

But the thing a motorcycle has going for it is the lean. The turning of a wheel into something contacting the road with a curved surface rather than a flat one. As the motorcycle leans into a turn, the tire is not being asked so much to prevent a skid across the surface but rather to flow with it.

A rounded tire on a wheel in a leaned over position presents a curved surface that will, in motion, describe an arc…a curve like the one in the road. Of course it still requires traction, still must stick to the pavement to accomplish the change in direction, but steering inputs are small and require relatively little effort.

That makes the experience of riding a motorcycle on a curvy road fundamentally different than that of driving a car. The lean is thrilling, even at lower speeds.

In my youth, though primarily a motorcyclist, I did enjoy driving cars sometimes faster than either reason or the law would allow. Given the tire and suspension technology available in the 60’s and 70’s, I often did find myself exceeding the limits of traction and learning by trial and lots of error how to regain some measure of control before hitting something solid.

For motorcycles in those early years, tires were an iffy affair, offering pretty good traction until suddenly they didn’t. The margin for error was quite slim and I often overstepped it, which with the ATGATT of the times (helmet, boots, jeans and a t-shirt) left me also testing the limits of youthful recovery. I’m sure many of the joints that creak as I move now in my 70’s are reminders of mistakes made in my teens and 20’s.

But still, with today’s tires or yesterday’s, the motorcycle’s wheel is flowing with the road while the car’s is fighting it. It reminds me of the saying by a pilot friend regarding two kinds of flying machines: “airplanes fly through the air, while helicopters beat the air into submission”.

Motorcycling is sensational, in both senses of that term. It offers physical and emotional sensations that few other activities can match for the price of admission. But the paramount of these, for me anyway, is the lean, the matching of the curve of the road with the curve of the wheel, the fluid feeling that is so good when I get it right.

In my “mature” years, I no longer try to see how low I can go, how fast I can take a curve, measuring success by grind-marks on foot pegs and no “chicken strips” on my tires. These days it is enough to just feel the motion, the change in the horizon and the flow of the bike with the land. It is an addiction that was instantaneous the first time I experienced it as a child and now, many decades later, I seek no cure.

About johngrice

Retired small town lawyer, lifelong motorcyclist, traveler and old guy sitting around thinking.
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