A New Yorker On The West Coast

Visiting the Motorcyclist HQ, riding with Zack and Ari, lane splitting, and having my fill of kale salads

Riding harley-davidsons
Soaking up the sun and riding Harleys.Spenser Robert

“They say California is a paradise/Hollywood turns nighttime into day/But up along the San Joaquin those city lights/Might as well be a million miles away”

- –“Leroy’s Dustbowl Blues” by Steve Earle

Normally, my wife Leah is very supportive of my work and excited for me to travel to far-flung places to ride motorcycles. But this time, there was more than a faint hint of envy as I was packing my bags to fly to Southern California. “Do you think I should pack shorts?” I asked, as she looked at me with one of those connubial glares that’s equal parts malice and reproach—tinged with love, of course. When I gazed out the window on Groundhog Day, bemoaning six more weeks of winter, little did I know that, now, 11 weeks later, winter’s icy fist would still be tightly clenched. As I packed my sandals and sunscreen, it’s no wonder Leah looked on with disgust. Needless to say, landing in sunny California was a shock to the system.

The main reason for my trip was to conduct some comparo tests with Zack and Ari, but as it happened, it was also my first visit to the office. Unlike other offices, HQ has a dyno room, a garage full of bikes, and walls plastered with large bike-related photographs, including Peter Egan aboard a Vincent. Even with such ephemera, there's no hiding the soul-crushing reality of office life.

When I settled in at a vacant desk, I admit I had a moment of panic. It was the first time I’d worked at an office since 2009. I spent the previous seven years as a farmer, which is like being unemployed, but with less free time and more sunburns.

Cycle World Archives
It’s easy to spend some time getting lost in the archives.Seth Richards

Fortunately, the guys took me out to lunch and I got to choose whatever bike I wanted to ride, so I went for the Husqvarna 701 Vitpilen on the way there and the KTM 1290 Super Duke on the way back. Maybe office life isn't so bad after all. "That's probably the only 701 in the country, so be careful," Ari advised. Loud and clear.

At home, my back-road commute through the “pied beauty” of central New York’s farmland and wooded corridors is a far more inspiring journey than tiptoeing through the wall-to-wall traffic of the 405 freeway. And there’s marginally less weed smoke wafting from car windows.

In rural New York, lane-splitting is unheard of, largely unnecessary, and illegal. On a trip full of firsts, riding unfamiliar motorcycles inches past Porsche mirrors was the most surreal experience. Harrowing, actually. Californians may scoff at that, but I never want to be complacent or too at ease when sharing a lane with a half-baked skater in a Civic Del Sol. I think it’s a great law and completely necessary in SoCal, but it’s probably the most dangerous thing I’ve done on a motorcycle in a while. Admittedly, I’ve never been a “Hey guys, watch this!” sort of person, preferring to conceal my lack of talent beneath a facade of cautiousness and feigned maturity.

Not content to make me look merely like a no-talent wuss, California also made me look like a moron.

What’s the deal with those vapor guards on gas pumps? As I struggled to put fuel in our test bikes, Zack and Ari must have thought I was a complete neophyte. If they did, they didn’t let it show.

Impressions of California? The abundance of twisty roads is unparalleled; as is the abundance of kale and quinoa. There are a lot of pretty people there too. If I wanted to fit in, I’d have to start doing yoga and get on some epic juice cleanse. Even then, I’d still be too hairy. “Are you, like, from Europe or something, brah?”

Also, I’ve never seen so much Lululemon in my life.

ktm super duke and husqvarna 701 vitpilen
Lunch time.Seth Richards

Most of my time there I rode bikes. On test days, I’d meet up with Zack and Ari around 6 a.m. before rendezvousing with videographer Spenser Robert (old-soul millennial, Gold Wing enthusiast) and staff photographer Jeff Allen (straight-faced giver of dubious parenting advice: “Don’t get too attached”). Test days were typically north of 12 hours, but looked a lot like any other ride with friends: stopping at diners and waxing poetic on banana pancakes with real maple syrup, and cracking puerile jokes over the Sena Bluetooth communicators. Good times with a fun crew.

One of the wonderful things about motorcycles, and something that we’ve all likely experienced, is the way they establish an assumption of commonality between people. It’s as though the motorcycle, as the lens through which we interpret our own history and experience, creates a means of relating that transcends the superficiality intrinsic to our quotidian existence. It’s unspoken, but inclusion based on mutual affection for the machine is par for the course.

Zack, Ari, Spenser, and Jeff have been in the industry for years, but they brought me into the fold on equal terms. The commonality of our two-wheel histories seasoned all of our interactions. Yes, we’re ostensibly just riding motorcycles, writing about them, and taking photos and videos of them, but really what we’re doing is cultivating community that’s distinct from geographic and cultural boundaries.

The California I know, seemingly a million miles away from Upstate New York, is a great place to ride twisty roads and have breakfast with friends. And it’s only accessible by motorcycle.