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City Journal Summer 2007.
Summer 2007
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Giving Up the Hog
Jerry Weinberger

With a heavy heart, I’ve just put my Harley-Davidson Dyna Glide up for sale in the Lansing State Journal. The Dyna is my second Harley; the first was a badass Sportster 1200 Custom that loosened the teeth after an hour in the saddle. I can’t ride any more because three years ago, I got my foot down in a motorcycle rodeo and almost lost my right arm to the resulting (happily temporary) paraplegia. I still can’t turn my head far enough to make my bike go exactly where I want it to, let alone to watch out for cell-phone-yakking drivers.

Motorcycles weren’t an attraction of the early 1960s counterculture of my youth, when I first started to ride, largely because the Hog World then belonged to lowlife characters like Sonny Barger and the Berdoo Hell’s Angels. But things began to change when Easy Rider came out in 1969. Who could have predicted what it would kick off? A hit TV program of the late 1970s and early 1980s, CHiPs, featured motorcycle cops in really tight jodhpurs. Arnold of California rides a Harley. Jay Leno does, too, and the ridiculous John Kerry paddled a Harley onto his show in 2003. There are Jewish motorcycle clubs like Hillel’s Angels (Jews can ride Hogs, they just can’t eat ’em). The Guggenheim has produced an exhibit called The Art of the Motorcycle. The still-living Barger now peddles a book, Freedom: Credos from the Road, which espouses a philosophy called the Zen of the Highway.

And Harley riders are now as likely to stop for a latte as for a beer. In 1985, the median motorcyclist was 27 years old. By 2003, he was 41. It’s rare to find anybody under 50 on a Harley—like the Corvette, it just costs too much for the young. Hogs are now for geezers, many of them rich leather-garbed biker-wannabes. And lately, a lot of these wealthy crazies are getting bumped off crashing their motorcycles. Between 1997 and 2005, motorcycle deaths soared a whopping 115 percent. (New York ranks sixth among states in motorcycles on the road, so the increased carnage has to be felt in the Big Apple, too.) The piles of dead lawyers and stockbrokers will grow, but at least their kids will have finished college.

The numbers have provoked certain activists to scream for more helmet laws. Well, maybe helmets save lives. But it makes better sense to think that it’s really dangerous for a novice, helmet or no helmet, to take off down the road on a huge crotch rocket. And that goes triple if the novice is 50.

Even experience by itself isn’t the answer. The fact is that it’s impossible to learn how to stop a motorcycle properly from any amount of experience (unless God is riding two-up). That’s because when you stop fast the rear goes up, not down, and if you stop fast enough the rear wheel locks, the rear end fishtails, and when you see the flailing rear end out of the corner of your eye, every synapse in your head tells you to get off the rear brake. That’s when you die. I won’t bore you with the physics, but it’s called getting a “high side.” Getting a high side at a mere five miles per hour will toss an 800-pound bike into the air and the bike will go far: and since you’re on top, the machine lands on you. The whole deadly ballet can take only a second. I’ve seen this happen twice to others, to gruesome effect.

The only way to learn what to do is to be taught by an expert instructor—most of them are cops—first on dirt and then on pavement, and first at five miles an hour and eventually at 40. I’ve done the latter about 20 times, and even the last one made a certain part of my anatomy pucker up. Any rich middle-aged crazy who hasn’t done the same—Arnold, Jay, are you listening?—is playing Russian roulette.

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More by Jerry Weinberger:
It Takes a Certain Kind of Village
Food Politics, Food Pleasures
Our Franklin
More . . .
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The “Affirmative Consent” Trap
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