What does it feel like to ride a motorcycle?

Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values” puts it wonderfully like this:

“You see things vacationing by motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.

On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.”


The description in italics below is my personal reflections about motorcycling. [The section further below (after the italics) is more of a real world account of what you might experience on your first ride)]. Motorcycling means a lot to me, and I write this blog out of a passion: I hope some of my passion touches you and that your are encouraged to get out there and start riding too.

Riding a motorcycle is a tangible essence of freedom. An addictive, hedonistic experience where your senses are assaulted and brought to life. Every journey is a joy filled juxtaposition of both terror and peace , a thrill of adrenaline fueled excitement coupled perfectly with the blessed serenity of a cleared mind.

When motorcycling, you understand more clearly (whether consciously or subconsciously) that your mortality is an inescapable truth. You appreciate more keenly you have a finite existence on this earth, because you know you must accept a certain ‘risk’. This risk, is that when motorcycling, you are simply more exposed and vulnerable (for a multitude of reasons) versus choosing another form of transport. What sets you apart, is that you can see in the path before you, many joy filled, and thrilling experiences, indefinitely more rewarding than the risk, because my friend, you are a motorcyclist.

As you travel on a motorcycle, your surroundings do not simply hurtle past without meaning. Instead, you feel a sense of belonging – you are somehow actively engaged as part of a living landscape. When riding a motorcycle you feel part of life’s tapestry again, instead of being on the outside looking out as the world passes you by. You are no longer just a spectator.

Acceleration on two wheels can (and will) intoxicate you. This simple Newtonian force is delivered in such a visceral way on a motorcycle, that it is simply nothing like what you might experience in any ordinary sports car or any other form of transport. That instant pull of force on your arms as you grasp onto the handlebars, coupled with your legs clamping onto the fuel tank, straining to remain on-board as you are fighting against the intent of the wind as it batters into your chest. You feel in your core that the wind blast is screaming, it howls like an angry beast, its desire is to rip your body away from your saddle. Welcome fellow rider, you are now engaged in the battle! Throughout this whole experiencing of mind bending acceleration and wind forces, and even with a tempest of violent noise roaring from your exhaust, and the vibration singing from your engine as revs sore higher and higher, you must remain calm. Your heart rate must remain steady, your grip on the throttle must be relaxed and gentle – your life depends on you being in a place of control and having dedicated focus.

This is the key to your survival, you must always be assuredly calm and gentle with your inputs that control your motorcycle. Quite simply, your life depends you achieving a state of focused ‘motorcycling zen’ . It is here, in this place of focus , where I find motorcycling gives us its greatest gift. A place set aside from all the thrills and sensations your body is being subjected to as you ride. A place where the art of motorcycling, by necessity, brings your mind and soul into the present moment. A place where you can neither muse over the past left behind you or worry for the future ahead. Motorcycling can shift your mind to a position of singular purpose, taking you away from the overwhelming blizzard of distractions that modern life throws at us. Author SmartMotorcyclingGuide.com (Copywrite)

Things you will experience practically on your first ride:

Vulnerability. For the first time, you experience yourself at a road junction, naked. Surrounded by car drivers, by these cages of steel, but you are free. You are looking at these machines from a vantage point you have never experienced before. You lift your visor and can hear their muffled radios through the closed windows, feel the radiant heat from their hot waft from the engines surrounding you, and smell the acrid exhaust fumes from their tailpipes. It is a sensory overload. You feel like a lithe panther, stalking through a pack of muscular buffalo, you are vulnerable to their bulky mass and size, but you are prepared, alert and ready.

The feel of the wind. You feel the wind like you’ve never felt it before. It moves you and your motorcycle around, strong gusts of wind easily can send you veering offline, but you are constantly correcting, constantly concentrating. Your head is enclosed in your helmet, but is buffeted by the wind, battered and knocked. You turn your head to the side for first time to check blind spot and you are shocked as your neck strains against the force pulling of the gusts which have caught the flat side of your helmeted head.

The feel of the road. You feel the road surface as if tracing it with the tips of your fingers. You notice how the grip changes between different surfaces, how the shiny black tar of ‘crack fillers’ and the freshly painted road markings are scary as hell because they offer such little grip. You see now how some deep cracks in the road can be as wide as your tires and that your life depends avoiding them. As your experience grows, your body becomes adept at adjusting to being thrown around by the wind, your neck becomes stronger and resists that wind buffet. As your body adjusts riding against the wind becomes second nature and you grow into a newfound competence where you enjoy the challenge of reading the road.

The smells of a journey. When you ride a motorcycle, you notice smells in a way that you don’t when you travel by car, or even by bicycle. The smells change frequently, which increases your awareness of them. These smells greatly impact the experience, and help to form lasting memories in a way that are very unique. You will remember the mossy, earthy smell of the riverbank as the road dipped down towards a river in that one section. You will look back fondly at that turn where you passed that open farmland where for two miles you were enveloped in a sweet fresh scent of cut grass. You remember passing that quarry and smelling a dry dustiness of broken stone, something that you did not know you could even smell or sense.

Temperature. Sometimes you will notice that you are close to a river or other body of water before you even see it, because you ‘feel’ the temperature drop. You just don’t notice it on a bicycle because it happens slowly, and in a car there is too much insulation. When a cloud moves over the sun for a few minutes, you feel your hands start get colder on the handlebars as air temperature hitting your knuckles has dropped.

Speed/Acceleration. Motorcycles, especially sportbikes, accelerate like very few cars do. A sportbike can reach 100 mph in a little over 5 seconds (in the right hands!). The acceleration is so fast that it’s almost overwhelming. Now, in terms of speed, when you ride a motorcycle you experience velocitation in a significant way – that is the phenomenon by which your body and reflexes adapt to high rates of speed, which then ‘seem’ slower after extended periods of time. So you can go very fast on a motorcycle, but your body is so connected to your machine you quickly ‘adapt’. The speeds you are travelling at ‘seem’ to become more manageable and normalised. Your body has adapted its sensory perception where you feel, intimately, everything that is going on with you in connection with your bike, even at these high speeds. You must as new rider be aware of this phenomenon, prepare yourself for velociation, because it lulls you into ta false sense of security: your body simply grows acclimated to these incredible speeds you can easy reach on a bike. You must work to pull yourself come away from that world of speed on the public roads, the place for experience is only on the race track, book a track day now and experience a safe (er) time of pure theater and excitement!

Lean Angle. Unlike 4-wheeled vehicles, riding a motorcycle requires you to manage traction, and lean angles and acceleration and braking forces all at once. So it’s significantly more involving than driving a car. To add to the thrill, motorcycles lean over when turning! (While many modern sport-bikes motorcycles can be leaned over to the point of dragging hard parts of the machine (or your knee) on the ground – you’ll not experience this in the normal road riding but you will still feel that sensation of “leaning over” on every ride!) Leaning your bike over in turns adds a huge amount of fun to the experience. There is really nothing like it. (Look out for my article soon to come on explaining counter steering!)

Your body is engaged. Both your hands and feet are always busy. This might sound pretty obvious to any rider, but before I started riding, my entire knowledge of motorcycle riding was pretty much based on Excitebike and other video games. (Twist the throttle, make a turn, how hard could it be, right?) So when I realized how much your hands and feet are working while you ride, it kind of took me by surprise. For the most part, there is no such thing as an “automatic” motorcycle; all motorcycles are manual. Your left hand is working the clutch and the indicators (turn signals), your right hand is working the front brake, your right foot is working the rear brake, and your left foot is working the gears up & down. It’s a lot more work than it seems, but this engagement and involvement with your machine adds to the pure joy of riding.

The sense of mortality. When you ride a motorcycle, you’re truly putting yourself at the mercy of the rest of the world. When riding you are, at all times, keenly aware of your own mortality. And quite frankly, you should be. Once you start relaxing or acting carelessly, it could be over. This is why where I talked about that ‘focus’ that is required of you as a motorcyclist. When riding, when concentrating, you find yourself brought into a place of zen like peace and calm, a place of hyper awareness, a state of mind that allows you to access your senses, and control your entire being with a peacefulness that is incomparable. This state of mind translates to a smooth and gentle input on the controls of your machine no matter what you experience on your ride.

You become a better road user, and better car driver. You stop trusting people to act rationally. This is a key part of the motorcycle experience. All those small things that happen on the road which people don’t think much about? Motorcyclists notice them, and are constantly making lots of small decisions accordingly. You notice the big things, the small things, and everything in between. “Is this guy in front of me texting? Is that guy going to pull out of his parking spot? The surface in this lane sucks, is it safe to switch? Is that car going to cross my path to exit? When is this truck moving over, I don’t see his indicator yet? Am I out of his blind spot yet?” You might feel like the king of the road, but you learn quickly that cars & trucks aren’t thinking about you at all. You learn to constantly analyze other people’s agendas & learn to predict their behavior. (My blog on defensive can help you learn more about this – please take time to read it)

If you are reading this and would like to learn more, you can pick up Robert M. Pirsig, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values” here. I’d encourgage you read this too, fantastic story.

As I said above, I am passionate about motorcycles and about motorcycling. I would love to hear your thoughts on what motorcycling has meant to you below. As I said above, I hope some of my passion touches you and that your are encouraged to get out there and start riding too.

Ride safe, Ride Smart

Smart Motorcycling Guide.