Column: The Cycles of Life

In winter, space is tight inside my workshop with the machines I bring indoors for the season — my wood splitter and lawn tractor, now nestled with a motorcycle that enjoys the privilege of a roof year-round. Most people are surprised to learn I like motorcycles, and some show alarm as they imagine a grim end in my future. I know better than to say I haven’t gone down yet, so there is some awkwardness while the omen lingers. A wiser man than I would know better, but there it sits on a stand next to the splitter and in front of the snow blower, a Yamaha R6, the gleaming blue street version of a mid-sized racer.

It turns out that motorcycles have rumbled through my life for roughly half my adult years. When I was 20, I found a second-hand BSA single in London that the telephone company had used for house calls, and for the next three months I rode it through Europe. At the end of the summer I lashed it to the deck of a freighter in Norway and shipped it to New York for $15. I rode it for the next two years in college, sometimes with the woman I would one day marry behind me on the seat, until I sold it to buy an engagement ring.

Twenty years passed, years of judgment you might say — graduate school, a developing career, and the responsibilities of husband and father — and motorcycles disappeared from my life. It’s true my ears were still tuned to the sounds of traffic, and occasionally I would perk up to the sound of a passing bike; but through those years I never thought I would own another. Then one day in my early forties, the door opened. It was a warm afternoon in early June, a meeting of deans at our home at the end of a school year with a long agenda I was determined to complete, and my son, just 13 and home from school appeared with a look that said we needed to talk. On the way home he had found a small motorcycle, a hopelessly rusted, two-cycle Yamaha 80 that hadn’t run for a decade. He paid $20 for it and wheeled it home and now wanted permission to see if he could get it going. My group was waiting, and the request sounded reasonable, a project so complicated it would teach him patience and perseverance. He would eventually need my help, but now I could finish my meeting, so I said yes and told him where to find my tools. Twenty minutes later I heard the unmistakable pop-pop-pop of a two-stroke engine, and that moment signaled the beginning of a persistent stream of motorcycles.

There was no future in that small Yamaha, so a few months later I took my son to a warehouse filled with salvaged motorcycles where you could buy almost anything from used parts to a nearly-complete wreck you could work on. I imagined a father-son project working together rebuilding a motorcycle, and for a while as we passed up and down the aisles, it felt like we were in a museum of ghosts. In one corner we found wooden boxes holding the parts for a BSA Victor 441, one of the most storied racing bikes of all time. It was way beyond my skills, but it would have been perfect, a restoration that would have lasted forever. But at that precise moment I realized my idea had morphed into something more selfish. I wanted a bike to ride. We moved on and soon found a pair of wrecks, both old Triumphs that we could meld into a complete Bonneville, once my dream bike. It would take months, maybe a year; but we could do it together. One day he would be old enough to ride it himself.

The project was a gateway drug. I worked slowly for months, long after my son lost interest, and emerged with a motorcycle that looked better than it ran. One day the next summer day I blew the engine and knew I needed help. I took it to a Triumph specialist, and there in his shop I saw what I really wanted, a professionally-restored Triumph 750, a classic bike that would run forever. I bought it the next day and it served me well for nearly fifteen years. Then when it was clear it needed to be rebuilt again, I decided my motorcycle days were over. I sold it in the summer of 2010 and got just enough money to buy a log splitter.

In those same years, my son grew up and began his own love affair with motorcycles. He learned to ride my Bonneville before he was legal, but he waited until he was eighteen to buy one of his own. And that began for me a twenty-year procession of his bikes to enjoy vicariously — a BMW for just a few days until he traded it for a Yamaha FJ. Between high school and college he rode it to Arizona and then took it to college. Then, a Buell and a ZX 10, both lost to thieves in Brooklyn where someone can snatch your bike while you sip a cup of coffee. Finally, the R6 that today I call my own because he has left it with me for safekeeping. He rides it when he visits, and the sharing has turned out to be good for us both.

The real truth is that it’s the riding itself that has kept me in. I’m no fanatic, no weekend warrior, and no member of a club; but there is no mystery about the fun of a motorcycle on a country road and a warm spring day. Short trips, long trips, I like them all. We live in Strafford, where needing something you can’t find at the general store means spending an hour in the car. We build our lists for days before setting out, but with a motorcycle to ride, a trip for a single item makes surprising sense. It’s the whimsy.

Early in my Triumph years, a friend and I would fantasize about a summer-long motorcycle trip we might take together. He had a great road bike with Louisiana plates, and I dreamed of getting a Honda ST 1100. We’d ride across the country then turn north to Alaska, and for a few years I think we actually believed we’d do it. Then it was just a dream. That time has passed, and now I’m more amused than rueful about the things I haven’t done in my life. And, of course, I have the R6 in my shop next to the splitter, waiting for Spring. It’s blue and clean and still looks good after a decade. The seat is high and raked, and it pitches me forward in a crouch, not a natural position for someone my age; but under my helmet with the visor down, for an hour or so I can feel like I’m 20.

Jonathan Stableford lives in Strafford.