Back in the Saddle | Behind Bars

By Jack Lewis, Photography by Shasta Willson

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Middle-aged guy who’s been out of the saddle for a while spruces up the ol’ ride and hits the highway.

This is statistically common. It would be statistically dangerous if anyone had a reliable way of tracking the fogey re-entry demographic.

Motorcycling is a complex task. You gotta stay with it. It ain’t “just like riding a bike.” Rusty skill sets are not well-served by equally corroded reflexes.

So who was this guy? Well, it was me (sorry, Boss—about the busted deadlines, the disappearing act, the obliterated moto-credibility…). I spent last winter huddled by the fire, banging on a laptop and trying to birth a book. That’s my excuse, but it didn’t earn me any points with Black Betty, the unforgiving mistress.

In the five years I’ve owned her, this is the first time I’ve had to recharge the Beemer’s little activated glass-mat battery. It’s the first year she hasn’t been treated to one or two (depending on time spent cheating with other motorcycles) 3000-mile services.

It was a funny feeling, losing my sea legs a little at a time. At first I craved the bike like a drug, but I kept my head down, working the manuscript. After a couple of months, I figured I’d get back to it real soon now, as soon as “this section” was done.

Then I started fabricating excuses. Too cold. Back is stiff. We need more firewood. Truth didn’t keep them from being excuses, but after 30 years of street riding, what did I have to prove? Well, nothing to you, maybe.

I’d look out the window, note the frost on my bike cover, shudder a little and try to think about something else. When the temperature climbed back into the 40s, I hit Reserve on my excuses and realized that, for the first time in decades, I had misgivings about climbing on a streetbike.

My own damned streetbike!

Dust crusted the gear closet. My back protector, squashed into an odd angle for months, warmed up slowly while I clanked around with Prussian military posture.

I warmed up slowly, too. Riding is a “What have ya’ done for me lately?” skill. The longer you go without, the less sure you are that the experience is what you think you remember—or that you are what you think you remember. Excuses pile up. It’s like chemical addiction, in reverse.

For that entire afternoon I fiddle-farted with maintenance, finally cranking the bike for a “shakedown” to the stop’n’flop station on the corner.

It felt weird. Countersteering worked as advertised—not just a good idea, physics are the law—and Betty shifted with her accustomed, tractoriffic clank, but I was as bent out of shape as a frigid back protector. Over-stimulated, I tiptoed cautiously on, listening to tires nibbling at street grit, brake discs jingling and the peculiar phut of an over-compressed hexhead on back throttle, trying to remember if these were normal noises.

Did it feel right? I couldn’t quite tell. If there was a groove somewhere, I wasn’t in it. The hand bones weren’t connected to the brain bone. Arcing swervies to loosen my back and warm the tires nearly tossed me into the bed of our neighbor’s Jimmy.

I crawled home, put my key back in the dish, and wondered. We had a ride-in date that weekend, a season opener with good food and excellent friends—all riders.

The next day dawned sunny. Geared up and ready, Pretty Wife stood stroking Black Betty’s flank and vibrating ever so slightly. Feeling vaguely fraudulent, I folded out the alloy passenger pegs, double-checked the trip odometer and launched into a lengthy disquisition. My pre-ride briefing detailed safety procedures, packing list, communications, planned stops… Pretty Wife finally grabbed my chinbar and looked into my eyes.

“I trust you.”

Oh.

I swung a leg high over the bike then. She hopped on and we eased smoothly out of the neighborhood. Somewhere between our front yard and the ferry dock, my world fell into righteous order as Betty pulled us faithfully on toward bent roads, twisted friends and deep-fried joy. In her tankbag rode maps, water, Öhlins wrenches, a satchel of ibuprofen, homemade potluck candy...

And a shiny new book.

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