Zen, and the art of motorcycles.


 Lets go places!  The Daytona never fails to beckon.

Spring is here and a man’s thoughts will turn to higher things,  up to and including motorcycles even, and so it is that I now find myself in a state of befuddlement over what it is I want from a bike. Two things have brought on this unreal state of indecision and perplexity. The first is an intense but informative exchange with a rather cultured fellow biker on Linkedin and the other was spending a day attending to the various bikes hibernating in the shed.

The subject of the Linkedin posts was the book Zen, and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Quite a mouthful for a best seller and quite a headful for those who persevere in working towards what they hope to be a new dawn of understanding at the end of the book. Whether enlightenment is eventually reached or not probably depends upon ones attention span or familiarity with other, more classic, schools of philosophy. But what is not deniable is that there is a darn good yarn underneath the hubris, and it is well told with plenty of little verbal hints and tics that so successfully portray a scene or atmosphere. The story revolves around a motorcycle trip during which the author, Robert Pirsig, attempts to reestablish a relationship with his young son, Chris. So far so good, but there is also a deeper movement involved, a search for some meaning to life, which is standard fare in most modern novels, Pirsig finds it in the spirit of the bike (a 305cc Honda CB77), the ‘Zen’ of the title and expands it to create his own personal philosophical construct, which is not quite so common, and some may be thankful for that.

This obviously raises the question of whether inanimate objects can actually have a spirit, a soul that is not physically part of the machine but is yet its essence, and the answer to that question lies, I believe, not in the machine itself but the way it reflects our aspirations and psyche. I was moved to this conclusion by the riding of the three bikes at the weekend. The first was 125 Suzuki, belonging to our daughter who had learn’t to ride on it and had been the only one of her age in town to contemplate two wheels instead of a bland hatchback. This is a bike that, like Pirsigs’s Honda, is easy to to understand and tinker with. A single cylinder, a basic carburetor, five gears and brakes that are simplicity itself to maintain ensure that it is comfortable to contemplate working on. The second was my Triumph Daytona 900 from the first year of the new company’s production. This design is more than 30 years old yet the build quality and solidness of the machine is really quite superb compared with the third bike, a Sprint 955. This represents the second generation of the Hinckley machines with a twin spar frame rather than steel spine of the Daytona. It has never struck me as having the finish or finesse of the Daytona but rather relies on appearance more than substance when it comes to build quality. Don’t get me wrong, it is a fine bike and no worse than others in its category, but build cost was obviously more now important to Triumph than when they had had a certain reputation to live down.

Three very different bikes, the little Suzuki is great fun to potter about on and evoked memories of youth when I myself started on something even smaller, there is no fuss or thrill of quite illegal speeds, just the joy of being elevated above the pedestrian. I loved it! The Daytona is a bit of a handful and one certainly needs to be a rider rather than a passenger. It’s a bike that you have to take charge off and bend to your will, not that it has any vices, but if you don’t show it who’s boss then you are going to frighten yourself. I love riding it! The Sprint is a different machine again, although only  a few years younger than the 900 it comes with a certain detachment from the raw thrill of riding. It’s easy to handle, has ample power, corners and handles even in the wet and doesn’t demand too much of you in judgement or racing skills, yet after the other two I wasn’t too sure whether my affections were kindled or not. This disturbed me just a little, I pondered on the need for the three and debated as to which I would sell first should such a situation arise; the crazy little getabout, the snorty sportster or the well mannered lady?

Still troubled by it all I swung my leg over the frisky dowager for a quick trip to the shops during which I had the need to avoid an errant van heading my way, a tug on the brakes reduced my pace considerably  and a crunch was avoided.  All was done swiftly, effortlessly and with a composure and assurance that would never have been experienced on the other two. That was the moment my passion was reignited, I loved the bike at last!  It was then I realised my own truth, it’s not the bike that has the soul, it’s the rider, and any spirit found within the machine is no more than an extension of your own. That is my zen,