The following is my confession. I murdered my very first motorcycle.
Looking back, I'm not even sure how the whole thing happened. I didn't grow up riding motorcycles. I wasn't brought up to have a burning passion for them, didn't watch motorcycle racing, didn't read the magazines, nothing. I had been raised as a "car guy." Some of the formative memories of my childhood were rides in my Dad's Mustang, or helping him change the oil or rotate the tires in the driveway. We went to car shows, visited the Museum at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and I read most of his issues of Motor Trend and AutoWeek before he got to them.
Then one day when I was 19, I woke up and decided I wanted a motorcycle. Now.
I asked a guy at the car dealership where I worked how I should go about buying a motorcycle. He gave me the name of a salesman at a dealership in the next town over. The next day, I went to see Todd the salesman, and asked him what I should get for my first bike. Todd pointed out a gleaming, blue Yamaha YZF600R, a holdover from the previous model year, and said it'd be perfect for me. I, the wise 19 year old, took him at his word. I called my brother to co-sign the loan (which he inexplicably agreed to do), signed the paperwork, and promised to return the next day to take delivery.
I snagged the owner's manual from the expansive cargo compartment on the YZF on the way out the door, with the intent of familiarizing myself with the machine overnight. I reasoned that I had taught myself to ride my black and gold Huffy BMX when I was a kid, and taught myself to drive a manual transmission in my '88 Beretta when I was 17, so all I needed was to put the two together, and poof! I'd be a motorcyclist. Great plan, right?
The next afternoon, on my lunch break from the car lot, I turned up at the motorcycle dealership as planned. I picked out a matching jacket, gloves and a helmet from the showroom (with the intent of looking cool, rather than anything having to do with safety), stashed the thoroughly-read owners' manual back under the seat, and threw a leg over a motorbike for the very first time. Todd the salesman, by now showing the slightest misgivings about what he had just done, gave me a quick tutorial on how to get it started, and I wobbled off the showroom floor.
In the parking lot behind the dealership, I did a few circles and figure-eights to get the feel of the thing, and then, fully confident in my abilities, headed out into the world. Two right turns later, I merged onto Interstate 70 in mid-afternoon traffic, entirely convinced that I was going faster than I had ever gone before!
It was only after a couple miles, as tractor-trailers were passing me on both sides, that I realized I was going a mere 45 miles per hour. The sensation of speed on a motorcycle was unlike anything I had ever experienced, and try as I might, I couldn't persuade myself to twist the throttle any further to match the speed of traffic. I arrived back at the car dealership a little shaken, substantially late from my lunch break, but somehow still in one piece.
The next several weeks were proof that I have a flock of guardian angels, and that they are an active bunch. I rode my new motorcycle everywhere, as much as the weather would allow, and many times when it didn't. It was a chilly spring in the Midwest, and I recall more than one time having to wipe heavy frost off the seat before heading out for a ride to work, or to see a girl. I did my first oil change service myself, with no work stands and only trial-and error to figure out how to remove the fairings.
I was learning fast, and immersing myself in the local motorcycle scene. I'd go on lunchtime rides with my coworker, he aboard his decrepit old KZ750 with the megaphone exhaust that emitted an ear-shattering cacophony when he whacked the throttle open. As the weather warmed into a beautiful spring, I found the local bike nights and cruise in spots. And mostly, I just rode, every time I got the chance. My big blue Yamaha was a sweetheart to ride; fast, comfortable and easy to handle at anything above parking lot speeds. The thrill of acceleration brought by a simple twist of the right grip dwarfed any previous sensation of speed, even from my Dad's Mustang.
On a cool Friday night after work, I put on my favorite sweatshirt under my jacket and headed downtown, to hang out with the rest of the young punk bikers by the bars and watch drunk people do things drunk people do. I'd had a particularly bad day at work, sideswiping a Jetta with a minivan I was trying to move in the storage lot. I just wanted to relax for awhile, smoke a whole lot of cigarettes, and not think about the deductible that was about to come out of my wages.
Periodically, a handful of riders would suit up and head out for a quick blast of the freeways around downtown. A group with a few guys I recognized started to strap on their helmets, so I followed suit. I grinned, looking forward to winding it up behind the pack and watching some of the guys do long, stand-up wheelies down the highway. Five of us bumped and idled our way past the bars and into the night, turning right to enter the freeway ramp.
The ramp contained a gentle S curve, left then right, before it merged. As the riders in front of me got on the ramp, they romped on the throttle and rocketed ahead of me. I smiled and followed suit, knowing that my little YZF wasn't too slow herself, and I grabbed a handful of throttle to give chase. I was surprised when the bike lurched at the top of second gear, bumping into the rev limiter. I'd never hit that before. I shifted into third and looked up from the distraction to see the road curving to the right ahead of me. There was a small curb separating the on-ramp from the highway, and I found myself halfway through third gear, throttle wide open, and headed straight for it.
They say that time slows down in a panic situation. For me, time became a series of still photographs, with thoughts attached to them. I saw the curb, and target fixated on it. My inexperience, coupled with my velocity, meant I didn't instinctively know how to deal with what was in front of me. My fingers briefly reached for the brake lever, but the next mental photograph revealed that it was far too close to stop. Just before my front tire hit the curb, I had a final, nonsensical idea that perhaps I could wheelie the bike over the curb! Those of you who have ridden the old Thundercat know exactly how unlikely this was. But I whacked the throttle to the stops anyway, just before finding myself flying through the air.
The next set of images was a series of repetitions -- ground, streetlamps, sparks, ground, streetlamps, sparks -- as I tumbled down the highway. My poor motorcycle had planted itself on its left side and was pirouetting away from me. I had the presence of mind to fold my arms and cross my legs, since I figured flailing would be the worst thing I could do. And then all I could do was wait for what seemed a very long time, until I was sure that I had stopped rolling. Then I popped up (adrenaline is an amazing thing) and looked for my bike, only to see it a hundred yards or more down the highway. It was already upright (maybe I didn't pop up so fast after all?) and being pushed to the side of the road by the other riders I was with, who had mercifully stopped and turned back to help.
They called a buddy with a pickup truck; I called my sister. Soon my battered bike was stashed in the garage, and I was limping into the Emergency Room, bleeding from several places and unable to move my right arm. The damage to the bike was a bent frame, destroyed stator, and assorted rashed plastics. The damage to the rider was a torn rotator cuff and some excruciating road rash. But it could have been so, so much worse. The bike was a total loss, and had I not been wearing the modicum of gear that I was, I would have been as well. Even then, on a downtown freeway on a Friday night, I should've been run over by a car as I tumbled along.
So there you have it. I bought a brand new, perfectly good motorcycle, rode it for six weeks and less than 1500 miles, and then murdered it with stupidity and inexperience. I lived to tell the tale, and I do so often, especially to new riders, to stress the importance of getting rider training and wearing appropriate gear. But I still think of my beautiful blue YZF, and wonder what could have been, if we'd had more time together. I miss that bike.