I mean, don’t get me wrong: I tried the other stuff. I read more fiction—hell, I read more poetry, lots more; I lost 30 pounds; I convinced myself, for perhaps the 11th time, that I would take up drawing again; I took apart one of my guitars, redesigned it a bit, and put it back together again. (All of which got me through, what—May?) But when all those moments passed, I was left staring in the face of one of the biggest dreams I’ve always deferred: I wanted to buy a motorcycle and ride it fast, and often.
It started off this time, oddly enough, as a safety consideration. When we all thought we’d still be going back to work in our offices, oh, soonish, it seemed wise to make a plan to do so without relying on the subway. The fact that I can (and often did) fairly easily ride to work on a bicycle barely entered my mind. (What if I, you know, had to get to work, well, very fast?!) I’m hardly alone in this instinct: Motorcycle sales in the age of COVID are up by double digits—and over the last decade, the number of women buying them has doubled. (Chris Lesser, who runs Union Garage, a motorcycle-gear mecca in Red Hook, Brooklyn, told me of a more direct COVID connection: Two of his newest customers, having contracted the virus and survived, bought themselves motorcycles as a kind of gift of life.)
Project Motorcycle started, in my house, much like any of my other myriad obsessions: Once the seed was planted, there was a body of film and literature to work my way through. I re-watched Brando in his iconic role in The Wild One and Marianne Faithful in La Motocyclette (or, as it was titled in the US, Naked Under Leather—despite the hall of fame title, I beg you not to watch this); I started developing complicated theories and emotions about the way the then-nascent season of European motorcycle racing was shaping up, waking up early on weekends to watch MotoGP races before my kids commandeered the TV for SpongeBob marathons. Back issues of Cycle World started piling up. I secured an early copy of Phaidon’s new coffee-table tome The Motorcycle: Design, Art, Desire, which soon became my bible. (For the full-spectrum read-through experience of riding, obsessing over, worrying about, and changing-your-life-through-bikes, though, the reference standard remains Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s The Perfect Vehicle: What It Is About Motorcycles.)
There’s also, of course, a rich fashion history associated with motorcycling—one mined extensively by designers from Christophe Decarnin and, later, Olivier Rousteing (at Balmain) to Hedi Slimane (at Dior Homme, Saint Laurent and, currently, Celine). But none of these—or, for that matter, the leather biker jacket you can buy now at The Gap—have the functional appeal of built-for-speed clothing designed specifically for wearing while riding motorcycles, something that a label like Belstaff has been making for almost a century, outfitting everyone from Lawrence of Arabia to Kate Moss to the motorcycle-mad Steve McQueen along the way. (While Belstaff has in recent years focused more on the fashion side of the business, their Pure Motorcycle line—jackets and riding pants, some of them armored for protection, along with boots, gloves, and more technical gear—reflects the brand’s deep immersion in riding culture.)
At a certain point, though, obsessing over proper riding gear without having stepped over a bike starts to seem a bit ridiculous: The rubber truly does have to meet the road, so I signed up for the next two-day training class that the Motorcycle Safety School had available. (If you don’t live near New York—or if you want to know about 25-plus classes offered by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation nationwide, including the license waiver program, check their site.) If there’s any part of you that wants to learn to ride a bike, this part is a no-brainer: Aside from an expert instructor to take you from having never sat on a motorcycle to being able to safely navigate one in two days, the MSF-affiliated programs also serve as the road-test part of your licensing requirements; even better, they have their own bikes for you to use.
All of which brought me under the tutelage of a very patient genius named Bruno in a barren parking lot at the College of Staten Island in the late summer. We were a motley crew of 10 or so, including two women who’d spent years on the backs of their husband’s bikes and were now ready to ride their own damn bike.
Any fears one might have about being plopped on a 500-pound piece of smoking iron and being left to one’s own white-knuckled, high-revving idiocy are quickly KO’d: We’ve all passed an e-test before showing up, so we know our clutch levers from our brake levers and have a functional understanding of most of the bike’s simple mechanics. In any case, Bruno runs a methodical ship, and the vast majority of our time is spent crawling forward behind the bike in front of you, learning to manage what’s called the “friction zone”—basically, it’s when you let out the clutch lever just enough so that the transmission starts to pull the bike forward.
Funny things happen, though—and maybe the funniest thing is that they happen as much to the brash, bodybuilding, sleeve-tattooed MTA electrician as to the shy and reserved mom and the cocky real estate developer. And, yeah, me. We stall our engines. We can’t turn our bikes as sharply and nimbly as Bruno demands. But as the day progresses, the funny business happens less and less. And we all go home at the end of that long first day thinking to ourselves: I rode a motorcycle today.
As our group gathered outdoors in a large circle for some socially distant safety training and book-learning on the second morning, the only real drama of our training sessions walked in and sat down among us. “Say hello to Lígia,” Bruno pronounced, somewhat grandly. Lígia, we learn, took the first day of this class at another school two months ago before COVID concerns shut everything down; she’s here to finish what she started.
Backtracking a bit: We were all instructed to show up to class with our own helmet and wearing a long-sleeved shirt, some kind of jeans, and sturdy ankle-high boots. The deeply tanned Lígia, who stands about 5’ 2” and, I later learn, is from Brazil, is wearing what I can only describe as a kind of extreme micro-bra hand-knit out of a very small amount of black yarn on top, and seemingly painted-on jeans with thigh-high black patent leather boots with four-inch heels below. The rest of us have already gone around the group and introduced ourselves and talked a bit about what brings us here—why we want to ride motorcycles. Now it’s Lígia’s turn. “I love the motorcycle!” she says, with a kind of electrified effervescence. “I learned to ride one month ago and already have a Kawasaki Ninja”—have you ever had a motorcycle fly between you and another lane of cars on a highway at breakneck speed? I’ll give you even odds they were riding a Ninja—“but I CRASHED the bike, CRASH! CRASH! Six times I crashed! I broke my foot!” she continues, now smiling and pointing at her foot, which seems fine now. “I crashed in front of a cop but he does nothing! So I’m here to get a license!” Having explained herself succinctly, she collapses into her chair giggling.
(About crashes, and the general danger associated with motorcycles: There’s no getting around the fact that riding a motorcycle can be a risky proposition—something your friends and family will likely remind you of continually if you express an interest in doing so. For the record, though, there’s a fair amount you can do to minimize your vulnerability: 90% of riders involved in crashes, for example, have never taken any kind of training course on a bike; about a third of them don’t even have a motorcycle license, and more than half of them are under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Eliminate these mistakes and your odds of avoiding crashes go way up.)
By the time we’re back on the bikes, Lígia has managed to procure some sort of oversized hooded sweatshirt, which falls down to her knees, and is attempting to squire around a tiny Honda Grom—at 125cc, it’s a kind of starter bike that’s less than one-quarter as powerful as her Ninja, but it seems to be giving her a full portion of discontent. During a break in the action, I’m determined to find out what makes Lígia tick and learn, among other things, that two months ago, she didn’t even know how to ride a bicycle, but now has a nuanced understanding of motorcycle helmet brands and engine configurations, among many other matters of engineering and style, and has her heart set on racing motorcycles in the street in the middle of the night.
We learn to shift gears; we learn to turn, and to swerve to avoid an obstacle; we learn to brake—suddenly, if needed. At the end of the second day, we’re each run through a battery of tests, one at a time, using all of the skills we’ve been taught. We’re allowed to make a limited number of very minor mistakes; too many—or if we drop the bike (dropping the bike is when the bike goes down when you’re riding it; suffice to say that you do not want to drop the bike)—and we’ll have to try again another day. Most of us fly through the tests fairly easily, a few cut it close, but even Lígia somehow pulls off what seems to be, from what we’ve all witnessed, the performance of a lifetime and will soon be on her way to being a fully licensed hellion on wheels. (I’m relieved that I live many ZIP codes away from Lígia.)
As for myself: I was so thrilled to pass this particular gauntlet that I drove to a Dairy Queen in New Jersey to celebrate. With my road-test waiver now in hand, getting my license came down to a simple permit test at the DMV et voila—I now had a new license with an “M” stamped on it. But all I had proven so far was that I could navigate a parking lot at a rather slow speed. How would I handle real-life driving? With the help of a loaner BMW G310R—an agile, lightweight machine made for navigating city terrain, the perfect first bike for someone in my situation—I charted training courses of my own through my Brooklyn neighborhood and down to the somewhat-abandoned streets of Red Hook and back. And back, and back. A few days later I hauled myself across the Brooklyn Bridge and onto the BQE; a few days after that I made a run up to Bear Mountain and West Point, finally feeling what it’s like to have the wind rushing past you at… well, at whatever the posted speed limit was, of course. The big surprise wasn’t actually the wind rushing past you but, rather, the wind rushing directly at you—60 mph feels a lot more turbulent when it’s hitting you squarely in the chest. (I also, I learned later, got my first speeding ticket during this time—a very non-dramatic 37 mph in a 25 mph zone, captured by a dastardly camera.)
Right around the time I had to surrender the BMW—having put almost 500 miles on it in just a few weeks—as luck would have it, a friend and former Vogue colleague was getting rid of his motorcycle, a spectacular, near-mint Triumph Bonneville T100. After he decided to pull up roots and embrace the kind of vagabond life that our current remote-working climate makes possible, the last thing he needed was to move a quarter-ton of 860cc air-cooled British machinery. I picked it up on Election Day, and in that panic-stricken psychological terrain between voting and when returns actually start coming in, rode gleefully hither and thither up, down, and around New York City with not a care in the world. I’ve since had strangers in passing cars on the highway slow down just to wave at me and give a thumbs-up; children playing in the street where I parked my bike saw me walking toward it with my helmet and yelled for their friends to get over here now because “He’s going to unbox his motorcycle!” (I keep it under a tarp.) Grown men—and women—now come up and tell me about the bike they used to have, or the one they want, or—my favorite—how “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore, do they?” (They do! They’re making them exactly like this at this very moment!) On a return trip to Bear Mountain, now on the Bonneville, with another Triumph-riding colleague—watch this space for further news of the nascent Vogue M.C.—my involuntary ear-to-ear grin almost gave way to tears of joy. Or was that just the wind?
The best part, though—aside from the speed and the rush and the open air and the barely contained glee of piloting a rocket over asphalt—is what happens when I now pass another motorcyclist going the other direction. In the city, the gesture is economized to a mere nod, but on the highway, the rider’s left hand leaves the handlebar momentarily, dips a mere inch or two, and two fingers are extended downward. The so-called “motorcycle wave” has endless variations, interpretations, rules of etiquette, and etymologies (the two fingers of the most popular wave are a kind of shorthand for “Keep your two wheels on the road”), but they all share a common sentiment: I see you.
One of the great joys of a new obsession like motorcycling is, frankly, all the stuff you now need: There’s the bike, sure—and while we may be getting ahead of ourselves here, if you’re just starting out it’s well-worth looking at, in addition to the BMW I cut my teeth on, the Suzuki VanVan. Or, if you’re looking for more of a zip-to-the-beach scooter-type thing, there’s the 2021 iteration of the legendary ’50s-styled Honda Super Cub.
Next up: A helmet. Simply put: Wear one. Always. Even if you’re in a state that doesn’t require them, or doesn’t require them on adults. Buy the best one you can afford, make sure it fits properly (it will likely feel tighter than you expect at first), and wear it every time you’re on the bike. I wear a Shoei RF-1200, which comes with a fog-proof insert and an optional shield that reduces glare from the sun—and has been called, by people far more knowledgeable than myself, the best helmet they’ve ever seen. (I’ve added a Sena 50S communicator to the helmet. Essentially, it’s tiny speakers and a microphone installed inside the helmet, and a transmitter and controller on the side of the helmet—it’s controlled by both touch and voice and is equipped with Google and Siri assistance and allows me to talk to other riders I’m traveling with via intercom, call home, listen to music, and ask for directions.)
As for that perfect motorcycle jacket: Yeah, this time you don’t just want one; you need one. Ditto the boots. Belstaff is more than just the aesthete’s choice: Their Cheetham jacket comes with all the styling and ergonomic zippered pockets you’d expect, along with CE-certified armor at the elbows and shoulders (with an option to add a back protector), and I’ve shown their Endurance boots—built from water-repellent waxed buffalo leather over Vibram soles—almost a thousand miles of sun, rain, mud, and street grit (they also work quite nicely for outdoor dining) and they haven’t failed me once.
The Dutch company called REV’IT is building their own riding heritage: Founded in 1995 explicitly to design and manufacture protective motorcycle gear that looks good on and off the bike, they’ve since expanded around the world. The whole line is worth a look, particularly their jackets for city riding. Their gloves are also best-in-class, whether all-season or cold weather.
There’s also the rare company as adept at making motorcycles as they are at making functional gear and just plain cool gear: Witness Triumph, which not only has made legendary, game-changing motorcycles since 1902; they also manufacture a line of riding gear (including an armored denim collaboration with Rokker) and have recently launched a lifestyle line (it hits American shores next year) that strikes the perfect off-bike mood.
TLDR: If you live anywhere near New York City, just go to Union Garage (and if you don’t live near NYC, go to their website): They carry Belstaff, REV’IT, Shoei, and a whole bunch of other brands—they make their own stuff too—and can set you up with pretty much everything you need. They’re also amazing at answering dumbass questions from newbies like me.