Riding to Indy, 2014

Maynard HershonAgain this year I rode to Indianapolis from my home in Denver, to visit family and old friends and to attend the MotoGP at the Motor Speedway. It’s 1,100 miles each way. I ride secondary roads in both directions, roads even residents of the states I pass through—Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois and Indiana—don’t use or think much about. There’s always an interstate nearby.

On those roads, I see the very occasional solo motorcyclist, most often on a Harley-Davidson, and two or three times per trip I see groups of riders, always Harley-mounted. When I come up upon one of those groups, I slot into a diagonal spot behind and attempt to ride with the guys.

I say attempt because I can hardly ever ride any distance with them. It is not that I ride so fast. I don’t. On rural two-lane, I may maintain a speedo-indicated 70 to 75mph, but the needle is 10% optimistic. So I’m not exceeding the posted limit in most cases—not by much, anyway.

It’s not that I ride fast. They ride so… slow.

I sit there at the back of the group. No one acknowledges my presence. I suppose I’m an unknown entity, perhaps a dangerous rider who may take down several of their number. They can’t see my license plate. They may think I’m local. And I’m on an imported motorcycle. How good a rider could I be? Am I a real motorcyclist?

Very soon I realize I’m riding as if I’m afraid I’m about to run out of fuel. I’m riding at minimum throttle, rolling along on the low-speed jets.

But I hate to pass those guys. I feel it would be rude, a helmeted guy on a Japanese bike, a “rice rocket,” whizzing past all those glorious Big Twins, all that rolling thunder nonsense. So I sit there as the tenths click over oh-so-slowly on my odometer, and I think about how far I have to go that day and on that journey. But I don’t pass.

Sometimes in my mirrors I see two or three cars lined up behind us, behind me. It’s family sedans and SUVs stuck there on their way to church or shopping in town, impeded in their relaxed progress by a dozen two-wheeled land yachts. It’s unnatural. A disturbance in the force.

Sometimes, not often, the least relaxed car driver will pass the group. Makes me quietly crazy.

Soon, I’m happy to say, the guys stop for fuel or a convenience store coffee. I’m off the hook and can continue riding my own pace. Briskly. Marginally over the posted limit.

As I sit there on my ZRX, worth maybe thirty-five hundred dollars, poking along behind all those big-money dressers, baggers, bobbers and what-have-you, I try to imagine what motorcycling is about for those guys. It evidently is not about what it is for me, and maybe not for you.

Traveling at 5 mph or more below the limit, especially with following traffic, is not how I learned to ride. It feels eerily unsafe. I cannot tolerate a huge automobile filling my mirrors, driven by an individual whose reaction times remain untested since 1974, when he tried to hit moving targets in a county fair shooting gallery.

Please note that I’m not claiming all Harley riders ride slowly, or all groups of Harley riders ride slowly or delay traffic on country roads. I’m merely telling you what I saw. Maybe you see something else.

On these trips, I’ve ridden the same roads for some years now. In the past I would stop when I could at a cafe in some tiny town for a coffee and a piece of homemade pie. Seems such a simple thing, but a half-hour off the bike in a small-town coffee shop is a genuine pleasure.

A little caffeine, a little sugar and some human contact. Where you from? Where you headed? What’d you do back there? You got people there? You ridin’ alone? Ain’t it awful hot…or awful cold? Want me to warm up that coffee?

I watch for those places. The best is to see a motorcycle parked in front of one of them. I’ll always stop and chat with the rider. Maybe he’s far from home. Maybe he has stories from his travels. Maybe he’s going my way. Be great to have a friend to share some of the journey.

Those cafes, coffees and pie are memories now, certainly on the country highways I ride across the middle of America. You can buy a Whopper or Quarter Pounder or a Pizza Hut pizza, but you’re too late for the pie. Signs in the windows of the old cafes say closed.

Riders still wave but most are in a sub-speed-limit rush to reach the next thing, whatever it is. They don’t have time to chat. Most don’t appear to have the inclination. And we’ve lost the places where we used to sit over coffee refills, exchanging stories.

In today’s small town restaurants, no one asks what you’re rebelling against. They just want to know if you want fries with that. I’d better stop writing this way or you’ll think I’ve gone all nostalgic.

This column originally appeared in our October 2014 issue.

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