Analog, Baby!


Washington County, Maryland, has a disturbing fondness for the use of chip and seal paving.

I’ll admit I’m probably using more than my fair share of poetic license when I refer to it as such, because their usage of the technology is really, really liberal in their use of ‘chip’, and more than a little stingy in their application of ‘seal’, to the extent where it might be more accurate to just refer to it as simply’gravel’, but as as my wont, I digress. That portion of me that always seeks to understand the cause and effect that drives the universe, and which tends towards the ever-so-slightly paranoid, suspects that Washington County has an unethical relationship with the local gravel pits and vendors of aggregate, but, no matter.

Why this could be important is because of a consciousness-raising experience that this proclivity of Washington County catalyzed in me during the middle of an otherwise unremarkable motorcycle ride on an otherwise perfect summer evening about a week ago.

I’ve been spending more than a little time, and as much money as I can spare — which isn’t much, sadly — on revitalizing my 1975 R90S motorcycle. I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ve been entrusted with the stewardship of something that is a high point in the development of motorcycles as combinations of technology, aesthetics and dynamic behavior, and that — barring some disaster — that I will do my best to both conserve and enjoy my charge for the remainder of my riding life.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encountered an another enthusiast who has told me, “I had an R90S back in the 70’s — best motorcycle I’ve ever had — I’m so sorry I ever sold it….I don’t know what I was thinking… I regret it to this day…”

I’ve firmly resolved never to be that guy. I’ll admit there have been times where I’ve had some weak moments or moments of doubt, but I’m better now.

So cut to me in the saddle of the R90S, breaking in a new transmission, tucked in under the bubble — to the extent my gut will permit same — finally able, after months of dirty hands work, to bring the bike up on the pipe, carrying about 85 miles per hour up Maryland Route 67, and feeling pretty good about the universe and my place in it.

Coming up on Reno Monument Road, I set up to work my brakes, drop some significant speed, and set up for one of my favorite stretches of very tight, very technical pavement.

Except that the Washington County Department of Highways had been out there since my last visit, and what was there wasn’t exactly pavement any more.

As I crossed the boundary between the state-maintained highway and the county maintained road, the surface changed from well-maintained macadam to a two inch depth of freshly applied loose gravel.

And in the next several mililseconds, what transpired is what makes me a motorcyclist, instead of a passenger.

Imagine a 40 year old, vintage sport motorcycle. Hard on the brakes, forks turned and compressed, carrying some speed and lean angle.

And then traction disappears utterly and completely.

Conventional wisdom, and all of the recent technological development in electronic rider controls, say that this is the moment when everything goes horribly wrong.

Only it didn’t.

The front wheel of the S locked up and washed.

In far less time than it took me to form the thought — “get-off-the-brakes-straighten-the-bars-and-gas-it” — I had already done all those things and was heading up the grade, thinking less than charitable thoughts about the parentage of the folks that comprise the Washington County Maryland Department of Highways.

People who design electronic rider aid systems for motorcycles begin with the notion that in that shuddering moment when we are most afraid, that we are unable to act, and must be saved.

In the moment when I was supposed to be the most afraid, I was not afraid at all.

No adrenaline. No quickened breath. No sweat.

Just an extraordinary sense of calm. Inner peace. Illumination.

I was — as I always try to be in the saddle — focused, in the moment, and confident of my skills, developed over 30 years of experience. When called upon, everything seems to slow down, and my muscle memory and balance do what I have trained them to do, and the machine does what I tell it to do.

And it doesn’t matter whether it’s a locked front wheel, or a rear wheel that is sliding and spinning on the very edge of traction, or even a front wheel that is drifting almost imperceptibly on a fast corner entry, I can feel what is happening in my hands, my feet and my thighs and groin, and do what the situation demands to respond in a way that demonstrates that I am the one that is in control.

That skill is one in which I have a fully understandable sense of pride. It may be the principal reason why I ride. That skill is the manifestation of a sense of grace that is far greater than what shows up in my dancing, is the closest thing I will ever get to flying unaided, and is something I hope illuminates everything else I do in my life.

And that is why technology that takes that – that skill, that grace, that joy, that demonstration that I exist as a master of this experience — out of my hands seems so alien and unacceptable to me. Entrusting that to software — while I freely admit it is, on one level, a technical miracle — diminishes the experience of riding, diminishes me as a motorcyclist, and diminishes the capability of human beings as a whole, who will collectively lose the ability — over time — to perform these complex tasks and experience the joy of being immersed in that moment — suspended between life and death — and to triumph over it.


2 thoughts on “Analog, Baby!

  1. Nice writing, and I agree with your thoughts. Except… you had 30 years of experience to back you up. New riders don’t. And that is who the electronic riding aids are designed to preserve. But the downside of electronic aids is that those new riders will never know their vehicles’ workings quite as intimately as riders of past generations have. Example: You really *learn* how a choke makes starting easier, when you have to start a motorcycle with a kickstarter.

  2. Pingback: LTO | Rolling Physics Problem

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