There are many benefits to touring on a motorcycle, but they don’t come without certain costs.  The reasons so many people never really experience the many benefits of riding a motorcycle, let alone the benefits of touring on a motorcycle is due to their inability to accept the shortcomings of riding.  This is not necessarily a conscious decision, and in some cases it’s not a decision that they have complete control over.  Here’s a list of things one needs to accept to enjoy their ride on a motorcycle.

  1. Inherent Danger.
    This is the first and foremost thing that keeps most people off a bike.  It’s more dangerous than driving a car.  You need to accept this to enjoy your ride.  We only live once and personally the experience of riding and seeing the road on a motorcycle outweighs this danger for me.  I also have been riding two wheeled vehicles for as long as I can remember and my worst injury to date has been a broken collar bone and thumb.  I know many people who play team sports that have had worse injuries, and actually, I have had a worse injury:  I had a pretty severe concussion from riding a bicycle while I was in college.  You can mitigate a lot of this risk by adhering to two basic ideas:  Wearing safety gear, and riding smart.  Unfortunately the smart riding can only really come with experience.  There are a lot of tips which I might highlight in future posts, but there’s no substitute for experience.  As far as safety gear goes, when I’m touring I ride with the following equipment:  Full Faced Helmet, Kevlar/Nylon riding Jacket (I ride with a leather jacket in nicer weather and shorter rides) with armor reinforcements, Dedicated back protector, Kevlar/Nylon Riding pants, motorcycling boots with armor, and armored leather gloves.  Luckily, I haven’t had to test most of this equipment yet.
  2. You will be uncomfortable
    Every touring trip has at least one moment where you’re uncomfortable.  It might be a cramp, a sore muscle, cold weather, rain, hot weather, intense sunlight, other drivers… whatever.  It will happen.  The world will conspire at times to foul your mood and make you wish you didn’t do this.  Being on a motorcycle exposes you much more to the world surrounding you and this is both a blessing and a burden.  The main reasons I ride are the blessings, the reasons I have second thoughts are the burdens.  I find the bad moments don’t generally last very long and in the long run you will enjoy the majority of your entire trip.  There are some precautions you can take to make yourself as comfortable as possible including bike choice, researching your route, the weather, mental preparations, packing smartly, etc.  Once again, this is something I will explore in further detail in future posts.
  3. Your Bike Will Get Dirty and worn.
    This is unavoidable.  Your bike will get dirty.  It will also get scratched.  If you ride through rain it will get very dirty.  If you ride through snow (and presumably salted roads) it will get downright filthy.  If you’re holding an aggressive schedule you might not feel you have time to clean it.  I met a guy once who apparently wiped his bike down every time he filled up with gas.  Most people aren’t so meticulous.  I like to schedule a bit of a break every few days that will allow me to catch up on cleaning my bike, checking over maintenance and such.  It’s definitely a good idea to lube the chain and check the tension every day if you’re touring, checking the engine oil and tire pressures frequently (as well as tire wear) but cleaning the bike just comes in pretty low on the list, and also takes about as long as everything else combined.  Although it’s good to note that often times a clean machine is a reliable machine.
  4. You will get dirty
    You’re often exposed to the same exact conditions as the bike.  Many larger touring bikes have big fairings and windscreens that can keep you well protected, however they’re not going to work perfectly.  I ride a naked bike so I’m just as exposed as the bike itself.  Rain gear is really nice in this sense to provide a layer to take most of the damage for riding in the rain or snow.  I also pack a set of clothes that I don’t wear while riding so that I have some clean clothes for socializing and being in public without being smelly.
  5. Your visor will get dirty
    Same scenario as the previous two, but this is worth mentioning because it really impairs your vision.  If you wipe it off a lot it will get scratched up, too, particularly if it’s snowy and the roads are heavily salted/sanded.  It’s not a bad idea to carry a spare visor for this case.  I also carry a set of goggles with tear-offs.  I used these once so far:  Riding in freezing rain.  I was happy I had them as they allowed me to actually see where I was going, that shouldn’t be underrated.
  6. Your attitude ultimately makes the journey
    I know, everyone always talks about attitude.  The reason’s really simple:  Your attitude is the only thing that determines whether you enjoy life or not.  That’s right, this transcends riding; ultimately it’s a life principle. Attitude: without a good one you will be doomed from the start.  It’s easy to have a good one when you’re riding in warm, sunny weather on beautiful roads just cruising.  It can be a bit more difficult when you’re riding in the cold rain.  It can be impossible at times.  So how do you keep going?  Sometimes I look at things as a challenge.  I always make sure to make myself as comfortable as possible.  Sometimes I just have to stop and take a break.  Finally, I always focus on the bright side of things.  The worst moment I’ve had to date involved being stuck in pouring rain, in stop-and-go traffic when it was about 45F out.  I was cold, I was soaked all the way through two “waterproof” layers, and I was not making any progress.  It was also dusk and I still had well over 100 miles to ride.  This was the single most difficult part of any ride I’ve had to date.  I had to stop.  I pulled into a Taco Bell and just got some comfort food and spent some time warming up (and yes, in conditions like this even Taco Bell is comfort food).  While I was there I wouldn’t say I got excited about my ride, but I readjusted mentally to prepare for the forthcoming ride.  Ultimately situations like this will make great stories to tell your friends, and when you’re done you can feel your personal sense of accomplishment.  The final thing is that you need to have a destination you’re happy about.  In this case it was a warm hotel room.  Now I can officially say:  I rode from St. Louis to Kansas City in the pouring rain in October.  It sucked, but I did it.  More recently I can say I crossed the Rocky Mountains in February, at one point in blizzard conditions.  I get a certain sense of satisfaction from having a guy tell me that I’m “certifiably crazy.”  Without a positive attitude (I kept reminding myself that crossing the Rockies was only a small part of my overall trip which included a significant amount of time in Southern California) I would not have been able to do this.  When the going gets tough, you have to keep your eyes on the prize.  Ultimately I’m glad I kept going.  In the grand scheme of things it didn’t last that long and the payoff was many wonderful experiences, including fair weather for the rest of my trip up to Seattle from Denver.

I’ve focused a lot on the tough parts of riding, so I want to briefly mention the reasons that you ride in the first place, and the reasons one might be inclined to tour on a motorcycle.  This is also worthy of it’s own article which I’ll get to eventually (although I have quite a long list of future articles at this point) but I think this article is worthy of a reminder why we do what we do in the first place:

Touring on a motorcycle provides a deeper connection with the world around us.  For some this can be a deeply spiritual thing, but it is certainly also valid for the less spiritual types of people.  You are immersed in the world to a much deeper level than in a car.  Everything carries much more gravity.  The smallest details carry stronger emotional responses.  A car is very much a bubble – it isolates you from the experience.  Many riders refer to cars as “cages.”  I don’t think the problem is so much that the cage of a car keeps you in, so much as it keeps all the unique experiences out.  This isolation is the exact reason that doing long trips in a car is relatively comfortable, and it’s also the reason you miss so much of what’s going on around you.  You are removed from the experience.  For the sports fans out there:  Being in a car is like watching the game on TV, while riding a motorcycle is like being at the game in person.  In some respects it’s even like playing the game yourself.  It’s like watching a standup comedian in person as opposed to on TV – you get all the dirty jokes and foul language.  It’s like going to a regular movie theater vs. IMAX 3D.  I could come up with a lot more examples, but the result is always the same:  Being on a motorcycle immerses you in the experience much deeper.  There is much more energy involved with the experience.

Finally:  There’s the time alone, the time inside your own head.  On the open road on a motorcycle you’re forced to be with yourself.  Personally I enjoy occasionally listening to music on my headphones.  I know some people use radio systems to talk with other riders they’re traveling with, but I think one of the most powerful parts of riding involves turning all these distractions off and just meditating on life.  Combining the immersion with the world that you get from riding with the lack of distractions really allows you to enjoy the trip.  There are few experiences that essentially force you to evaluate yourself and your place in life as deeply as riding a motorcycle on the open road.  Some people may of course be uncomfortable with this, and maybe touring isn’t for those people.  Or maybe those are the guys that have the GPS and the two-way radio and their MP3 player going all at the same time.

The ultimate point is that riding is what you make it, but there is no denying that it is a much more complete experience and connection with your surrounding world that driving a car.  That exposure is only as powerful as you allow it to be, and if you’re looking for that sort of experience then driving a car just cannot compare to riding.