Riding a Motorbike - What I've Learned After a Year And a Half

Oh hey banana... 😍

For as long as I can remember I’ve always been a car guy. Not a fast car kind of guy, or “I only like <insert favourite brand> cars” guy. But rather, "I just enjoy driving" kind of a car guy. I enjoy the experience rather than the outcome. The outcome in most cases – for most people – going fast.

I’ve never been that interested in speed either, so when I practically out of nowhere up and bought a motorbike a year and a half ago I think I surprised everyone, myself included. A mid-life crisis? I’m not sure I would call it that. Perhaps, a mid-life rebirth, but that’s a story for another time.

Before taking delivery of a bright yellow Ducati Scarmbler Icon 800, I had never swung a leg over a motorbike seat in my life. Okay, that’s not technically true. I once rode a friend’s dirtbike for a brief moment before falling off and deciding that was enough for me.

Growing up, motorbikes were outlawed by my parents, and I can still hear my mother forcefully saying, as I innocently asked (as I’m sure all young boys do at some point) about the idea of acquiring one… “As long as you live under this roof, you will never ride a motorbike!” And that was that. I never did.

So, a year and a half later, what have I learned? Well, a whole lot. Personally, the most important realisation is that if you can’t control your emotions, don’t ride a motorbike. A by-product of commuting in South Africa is anger. Anger at incompetent, ignorant road users. Anger at the state of the roads. Anger at the cost of petrol. Generally, South African commuters are angry.

In many cases rightly so, but almost none of these are under your control, and if you ride a motorbike angry, you’ll make irrational, emotional and reckless decisions. And if that doesn’t kill you or injure you enough to get you off bikes for good, it will ensure you make many enemies when you’re out on the road. You can control your emotions, so keep them in check.

Nearly all my time spent on my bike is spent commuting. Not far at all, my daily roundtrip commute is only about 20 kilometres. In that time I've become more confident at lane splitting in traffic. I'm no pro - nowhere near it - but my confidence in maneuvering through cars has grown from near-shitting myself to okay, I’m more comfortable with the width of my bike.

It’s a contentious issue, no doubt, and from my (limited experience) seems to cause a fair amount of animosity from other road users. Obviously I mean, from other people in cars. It’s weird, but I think it stems from other bad experiences with ‘bikers’.

By animosity, I mean, I encounter quite often people who will intentionally narrow the gap between themselves and the car in the lane next to them (1 or more lane roads), or oncoming cars (single lane roads), which apart from just being weird, is pretty dangerous for the person on the bike.

Personally I find it quite baffling, and even before riding a bike I always (whenever I could) made a clear effort to move over, even if just slightly, to accommodate a motorbike filtering through traffic. Why? Because one less vehicle in the traffic queue makes the traffic queue shorter & quicker for me and everyone else, right?

I also just did it because, well, isn’t that just the right thing to do? What harm is there in making space? I also always thought that if it were me on the bike, I’d really like it if there was a little more space to manoeuvre. Perhaps I was also just a little more aware than other people?

Side note: ‘Intentionally blocking or hindering a motorcyclist in a way that could cause harm to the rider’, is actually illegal. Shoutout to those people who seem to enjoy playing the ‘how far can I squeeze this biker towards oncoming traffic’ game.

Of course, there is no law compelling car drivers to move over, nor is there any law prohibiting bikes from lanesplitting – it’s perfectly legal in South Africa. So long as you aren’t contravening any other road law in the process (as far as I know?).

I think much of the animosity stems from the fact that in traffic, by its very nature a car is slow moving or not moving at all, and ‘bikers’ – by the nature of the machine – are able to carry on with their journey mostly unaffected, bypassing the increasing frustration felt by those sitting in traffic.

Side note: Traffic is this very reason that I bought a motorbike. Along with the continued nagging guilt that sitting in a car that could easily carry five, in traffic only ever carrying one – me – was a huge waste of space and resources.

It’s a “Well if I can’t go anywhere, then why should you be able to go anywhere? Heck, I’m just going to block you…” Which eventually becomes, “Urgh! Fuck, I just hate all bikers”. Of course, I’m polarising feelings here, not everyone feels this way. But a surprisingly large amount of people do.

And it goes both ways, some ‘bikers’ are intentionally aggressive, inconsiderate, dangerous, oblivious and generally flagrant of anyone else on the road that they attract this sort of ‘hate’ from other road users. Justifiable hate I might add.

I hate these types of ‘bikers’ as much now, being a biker, as I did before I was one. What I have now, though, is more perspective. Having the perspective of a biker means that I understand that not all perceived slights or aggressions are intentionally aggressive towards other car drivers.

Obviously bikes are very fast in comparison to most cars. Not just outright, but in acceleration. They’re also much more manoeuvrable. That combination means we carry more speed and arrive much quicker in your rear view mirror, and are able to slot into a gap quickly and move past.

Side note: A gap in traffic might not seem like a gap for a bike for someone in car. Having never ridden a bike, you might not even give thought to a certain space on the road actually being a manoeuvrable gap for a motorbike. Fact is, it usually is.

What became immediately clear as a very new ‘biker’ is just how aggressive even the slightest of actions is from someone in a car. Just a wobble of the steering wheel or a slight swerve in my direction is hugely exaggerated for the person on the bike. Trust me, on a bike you are vulnerable as hell. You’re naked!

Another thing I’ve noticed is just how aggressive you need to be on the road in order to maintain your presence and your sanity on your bike. Naturally these aggressions are what can cause some of the animosity between bike and car, but many are not intentional.

The most dangerous time for me on my bike is when I’m alongside another car, so naturally I would want to complete this manoeuvre as quickly as possible in order to return to a safer part of the road. Why is it dangerous? Because I would say 50% of road users don’t check their blind spots. And a motorbike, by virtue of its small road footprint, practically lives in your blind spot.

Of course it’s our choice to split lanes, and that means the onus is on us to make sure we stay visible and to not absolutely fly through traffic at twice the average speed. That’s just stupid and bikers who do this are asking for middle finger responses and general animosity from fellow road users.

A bike arriving loudly, very quickly and without warning can be very startling. And being startled when you’re driving is unsettling. I don’t enjoy it. It’s unnecessary. But a rider who respectfully moves through traffic, quickly when needed and generally goes unnoticed shouldn’t be seen as trying to intentionally enrage other road users.

Something else I think which is misunderstood by some folks who have never ridden a motorbike is that ‘bikers’ are intentional rude because they never say thank you, for a gap given, or perhaps when moving over to be overtaken. For sure, as I’ve mentioned above, I think that some bike riders are intentionally rude. I’m sure that many simply give zero fucks. But I also know for certain that in some cases it’s just not possible to say thank you.

As far as I know the universal ‘thank you’ sign on the road is a general lifting of an open hand. A quick flash of your high-beams or hazard lights is also acceptable. But the wave of a hand is universal, and in many instances on a bike, is just not possible. Consider for a second, on a bike, my left hand could be readying the clutch lever in traffic, my left foot is ready to change gear, my right hand is feathering the throttle and my right foot is at the ready to apply the rear brake. How do I say thank you? I can’t.

I often dip my helmet or nod in an exaggerated fashion in the direction of the car that has moved over or given a gap, but if you’re not a ‘biker’ this will most likely be lost on car drivers. Tipping of the helmet or extending a leg out are universal greetings to other riders, but as I said, if you don’t know that then, well, it will go unnoticed. Perhaps now you know?

Riding a motorbike is exhilarating, often pant-wettingly scary. It’s undoubtedly one of the purest forms of transport – from the involved nature of all the working parts – it forces you to be absolutely alert and part of every process. There are no sit back and relax moments on a bike. It’s a wonderful attack on the senses, from all the smells as you navigate life on the road, to numb winter hands on the Highveld and pop and bang of the exhaust on the overrun. I don’t ever not smile when I thumb the starter button and close my visor.

Is it for everyone? No, of course not. But if you get the chance, even to ride a scooter, I highly recommend it. If even just to experience life on the road from a new perspective. You might come to understand that not all motorbike riders are arseholes – at least not that guy on that loud yellow Ducati Scrambler.

PS BMW GS and Harley riders; you know what a head tip means right?

🏁

Header photo by Calvin Fisher