For those who have seen it, it’s a pretty unforgettable moment. Steve McQueen, facing hot pursuit by German soldiers in The Great Escape, accelerates his motorcycle into a berm and just launches the thing over a barbed-wire fence at the German-Swiss border. When I finally saw this film a couple years ago, I was captivated. What a fucking hero.
And almost without warning, I began to fantasize about owning a motorcycle. I mean, you can do a lot worse than emulate the King of Cool, right?
But I’m in my mid-30s (ish), which means I have enough sense to know that for every McQueen scene, there’s one like that episode of Louie, where Louis C.K.’s love affair with two-wheeled travel lasts all of a minute before he gets spooked by a gang and lays his bike down on its side. (And let’s not forget that things don’t end all that great for McQueen’s Great Escape character either.)
It’s just an incredible rush to gun it through a green light and feel the wind as you accelerate. And I think the sense of speed is all relative to the size and exposure of your vehicle. Because while 40 or 50 in a car feels like nothing, on a bike you feel like you’re fucking flying. Relax, adrenaline junkies, I’ll go much faster later in the article.
So while I did get my moto license—a weekend adventure all its own—and make several salivating trips to my local bike dealer, the utter impracticality of owning a hawg in Manhattan continually stopped me short of the final step.
That is, until I got a call from a Honda Powersports rep. Seems they were starting up a loan program in New York City, and they wanted me to be a guinea pig. I guess it’s now or never, I thought, and I told them I’d love to participate.
A few weeks later, a loaner bike, a brand-new silver-and-black CTX-700, was waiting for me in a garage under Rockefeller center. Holy shit.
What follows is a frank rundown of the lessons I learned riding this bike in, around and out of NYC for a couple of glorious summer months.
But first I should mention that I’ll be making no attempts whatsoever to impress you. When you have no background in it, motorcycling has a lot of barriers to entry, and I was hardly graceful in surmounting any of them, so it would be foolish to pretend. Especially when the first barrier sat, quite literally, at the top of the ramp getting out of the motherfucking garage…
1. Seriously, just getting on the road can be a nightmare.
Because that’s where I encountered one of those long gate arms that, theoretically, lifts up as you approach it. My parking was paid for, so after getting a feel for the bike—which was much bigger than the 250cc Suzuki I’d gotten my license on—I kicked it into gear and zipped up the ramp. But maybe because the bike weighs less than a car (about 500 pounds vs. tons), this arm did… not… move. And so there I sat, with my handlebars right under it and my whole body behind it. Stuck. And feeling like a complete idiot.
But somehow, after a bit of skooching, I managed to lean the bike to maybe a 60-degree angle and then walk semi-sideways under the barrier and get out. Whew! Steve McQueen couldn’t have… laughed harder watching that debacle. But finally I was hitting the road.
2. City traffic is a (pants-shitting) picnic.
And by road I mean midtown NYC traffic. Thankfully it was a weekend, so the gridlock wasn’t totally insane. But I should make it clear that when you get your license, or even take follow-up courses, they do not let you leave a large parking lot. So you basically just get really good at not hitting 1) your classmates, 2) the instructor and 3) cones. Little tiny cones.
But pedestrians and bicyclists and cars are different, especially when you are surrounded by them—and they (the cars) are honking at you to go because it’s a green light. Pop quizzes, SATs, college finals—I’ve never been so focused as the first time I tried to pilot a motorcycle along 49th Street to the West Side Highway. For the record it looked nothing like McQueen here…
3. But the first time you hit anything close to open road… WOW.
The West Side Highway is this big strip of road that goes all the way up and down the, um, west side of Manhattan, right along the Hudson River. There are still plenty of lights, but compared to most of the city, you can really open it up there. And considering I’d been in a parking lot or traffic for all of my motorcycling life, it might as well have been the Bonneville Salt Flats.
I can’t speak for all bikes, but on the CTX, it’s just an incredible rush to gun it through a green light, far ahead of just about any car, and feel the wind as you accelerate. The acceleration on this puppy is simply smooth and superb. And I think the sense to speed is all relative to the size and exposure of your vehicle. Because while 40 or 50 in a car feels like nothing, on a bike you feel like you’re fucking flying. Relax, adrenaline junkies, I’ll go much faster later in the article.
4. Gearing up is an adventure in itself.
When you get into motorcycling on your own, another thing you have no clue about is gear. All I knew was that I wanted some cool-looking, protective stuff that didn’t make me look like I was on my way to a BDSM club. Thankfully the good Italians at Dainese and AGV make street-friendly stuff for guys who want to gear up without being too in your face about it. So that’s mostly what I’ve been rocking: a super-stylish Dainese Washington jacket, Street Rocker D-WP shoes and AGV RP60 Café Racer helmet. As a beginner I should really be using a full-face helmet but, well, they don’t really accommodate the moustache so well. (For the record, vanity should never trump safety. But if we all stuck to that, women would never take the stairs in high heels—and I’m not sure the world would be a better place for it.)
I often wear large-frame Zeal Eldorado sunglasses, but for longer rides I go with goggles. Looking at these photos now, I have mixed feelings about them, but for anyone who’s interested, a dude named Liam hand-makes what he calls Halcyon Mark 49 Compact Deluxe Motorcycle Goggles and sells them on etsy. Last but not least I wear the low-profile Alpinestars SP-S Leather Glove. If you’re riding in the summer, you’ll feel really hot in all this gear, until you hit the highway—and the wind hits you and you’re pretty much… cool as ice.
5. There’s a hand signal you’ve gotta pick up on too.
I don’t roll with any motorcycle gangs, so I can’t let you in on any Sons of Anarchy-level shit. But one thing I have managed to pick up is that when you pass another biker, the universal signal is to take your left hand off the handlebar and hold out your index and middle fingers (almost like a sideways peace sign) to show that you acknowledge and respect your counterpart’s two-wheeled ways. This gesture is far superior to my first attempt at a “wave,” which involved me removing my right hand on the highway. Since that hand controls the throttle, the severe reduction in speed was a glaring sign this technique is wildly unsafe. Once you get into the habit of flashing the two left-hand fingers, it feels pretty fuckin’ cool. (Though I imagine any seasoned motorcyclist reading this will think I sound pretty fuckin’ tool. )
I should mention, that’s one of many lessons I learned from longtime motorcycling ambassador Rob Doyle of Moto Savvy, who not only took me out on multiple mentoring rides a couple hours outside of the city and taught me just about everything I know about two-wheeled transport, but also snapped the fine photos you see in this story. He’s a gentleman and a scholar, and I feel honored to also call him my friend.
6. Sooner or later, you will drop the bike.
It happened to me while going to visit some friends in Brooklyn. I was just sitting at a traffic light, totally under control, when boom, the bike goes down. This probably sounds ridiculous. I really don’t even know what happened. But the bike’s got some heft to it, and I guess I just leaned a little too far to the left. Thankfully no one was behind me, so I had time to drag the bike up and get back on it without being honked into oblivion. I believe the only witnesses were a couple of older Hassidic Jews who really couldn’t give a shit, but I still felt like a dope.
If you get into motorcycling, they say, this sort of thing will probably happen to you. But look on the bright side: It’s a hiccup compared to the other thing they say will probably happen, which is that you’ll crash. I cross my fingers, knock on wood and thank God every day this fate has not befallen me.
Side note: The CTX really is a fantastic, shall I say, advanced beginner bike. It’s big and powerful enough to zoom down the highway but still light and nimble enough to ease into park spots, steer around obstacles and accelerate out of a jam. Plus it just looks really cool.
Side note 2: While all lessons and prep work took place on the manual bikes that dominate the industry, this particular bike was automatic. While nothing beats the authenticity, style and hands/feet-on action of a manual transmission, automatics are great for learning to ride in a congested city. Not having to shift gives you one less thing to worry about when navigating stop signs, corners and hills. Hopefully better than Mr. C.K. did…
7. If you’re going for a 250-mile ride… get some freakin’ saddlebags.
About halfway through my tenure with the CTX, I had the bright idea of riding it from NYC to DC for my eldest niece’s confirmation ceremony. A whole chapter of my eventual memoirs will probably be dedicated to this perilous journey, but the biggest thing I learned was that it’s best not to attempt this sort of journey whilst wearing a 30-pound pack. The strain on your back when leaning into the wind is brutal and exhausting, especially when you spy more seasoned motorists cruising along with saddlebags on either side of the bike. It’s just painful.
The second biggest thing I learned is to know when you are overmatched. I began this journey on a Thursday evening, and while this trip can be made by car in four or five hours, a few hours in, in the dark of night, I realized that I had neither the strength nor the concentration necessary to make it all the way. So I swallowed my pride and holed up in a hotel. That’s one of two wise decisions I made on this trip. The other one was, when it came time to head out, I packed up about 90 percent of my luggage and mailed it to myself, which made the ride home a whole lot easier and faster. I didn’t even need to get a room.
OK, a third wise decision was not telling my mom that I’d be traveling home by motorcycle. Granted, she pretty much freaked out when she first saw it, but the way I look at it, I saved her several hours of worry on the front end. Sometimes what your parents don’t know is… for the best.
8. Highway semis are demons sent from hell.
On that same adventure, I had my first encounter with six-lane highways. This is where I really got a chance to see what the CTX can do, revving it up to 80 miles per hour at times, but also getting totally spooked by the numerous cargo trucks populating the various 95s. Holy shit. Every time I passed one—or one passed me—the shifting wind shears threw me for a loop.
These gusts hit you from all different angles, and you really have to grit your teeth and endure them without losing control. Every time I looked down, it appeared that my tires were sliding sideways in the lane. Somehow I got more comfortable when I realized they actually were shifting a bit, but my forward momentum was more than enough to keep me upright. Still pretty terrifying though.
9. But semis have got nothing on rain.
Perhaps nothing endangers a motorcyclist more than slick roads. I road into a light rain on the tail end of my trip home from DC, but the thunder and lightning in the distance led me to believe that it was only going to get worse, so I pressed on and made it home safely.
A few weeks later I encountered heavier rainfall on a much shorter trip to visit a buddy in New Jersey for a pretty kickass BBQ. It was definitely not ideal, but by slowing down to a very conservative 35 miles per hour I was able to complete the journey intact. That night there was a veritable downpour, forcing me to stash the bike in my buddy’s shed and stay over, but hey, on the upside, I got to drink!
10. Few activities bring you so close to the edge…
As you’ve probably grasped from some of the above anecdotes, there’s real danger involved in riding a motorcycle. While I’m no daredevil, I have undertaken some pretty ambitious snowboarding and mountain biking adventures. But nothing I’ve done—even heli-boarding—approaches the heart-pounding feeling I get shooting down a highway with nothing between me and probable death but a helmet, a leather jacket and my own wits.
When I first started riding faster than 50 or 60 miles per hour, I often felt like I could just be blown off the bike at any moment. I used to think, Jesus, if I were to sneeze and try to cover my mouth right now, that could be it for me. But that feeling is a totally healthy one. It means you have a real sense of the consequences and, despite this crazy thing you are doing, you remain on the right side of the sanity gauge.
11. …but fewer still are so damn exhilarating.
All that being said, holy shit riding a motorcycle is fun. Just an unbelievable rush. As Mathew Broderick says of the 1961 Ferrari 250GT California in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, “It is so choice. If you have the means I highly recommend picking one up.”
Just be certain to gear up properly, take some lessons and be prepared to check your ego and take a break when the hazards of the road get to be too much for you. Oh, and no matter how cool and free and Steve McQueen-like you might feel when you you’re zipping around on your speed machine… don’t go trying to jump over a barbed-wire fence.
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