When I traded home and hearth for a career in Southern California, I was afforded the opportunity to ride my motorcycle year round -- and I do so with a vengeance. Being carless (until recently) forces me to ride my bike rain or shine. (And yes, it does rain in Southern California.)
I personally love the freedom of commuting by motorcycle. It never takes me very long to get anywhere, parking is rarely an issue, my riding skills stay sharp, and at business cocktail parties, it makes a great conversation piece. Sometimes, though, certain realities do creep into my commuting utopia...
The brown Toyota Tercel jumped quickly from the far right lane directly in front of me. With cars on either side preventing me from swerving, I did what any motorcyclist in terror would do: I grabbed my brakes. As the rear tire lost traction and swung out to the left I started imagining what my left leg might look like after slamming into the car towards which I was now headed sideways. That is until the tire suddenly hooked and swung 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Then I began to think about the same thing, only this time about my right leg. But a miracle happened -- the rear tire that was fighting so hard to get back behind the front tire managed its feat. And it did so gently enough that while I found my posterior somewhere up around my shoulders, I was able to keep hold of the handlegrips, find my seat and regain control of the bike.
Yikes! All this at 6:30 in the morning on the way to work? What went wrong? Two things: I was speeding and Splitting Lanes on the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles with heavy traffic. That little wake-up call reminded me of one of the critical aspects of motorcycle commuting: watch your speed so you can react to the cars on the road. I still split lanes, but I am extra observant and keep my pace to just a smidgen above that of the cars around me.
The Wardrobe Issue
As motorcycles have consumed my life, so too have they consumed my wardrobe. For the most part, I shun purchasing clothing that can't be worn while riding. Hence, I have a closet full of high-top sturdy shoes with nice grippy soles, lots of pants and even more jeans. The few pairs of dress shoes, sandals, and skirts that I do have are rarely worn. This of course is in addition to my real motorcycle gear like my leather jacket, riding boots, racing leathers, several pairs of gloves, a rainsuit, several helmets, and my trusty Aerostich suit.
Buying gear to fit women can be a trial. Women have child-bearing hips so there is no way a guy's straight-up-and-down-cut suit is going to fit most women. Female racing leathers are made as a jacket and pants that zip together to form a solid suit, but guess what...you can't buy them as separates -- a serious problem for women riders. Shopping for my racing suit, I purchased expensive custom leathers because even the suits made for females didn't fit.
Aerostich is one of the only companies offering a female-friendly line of racing suits. I bought one and I love my Aerostich. Since it's made to go over clothing, getting an exact fit isn't critical. Plus the company does alterations to customize the standard suit. I ordered the suit, made a few alterations, and presto, you'd think it was custom made. Generally boots and gloves fit me, but some of my female friends who can't find gloves small enough. Since good fit is the key to good protection, it's a real problem. If gear manufacturers at least accept the premise that women ride as passengers, it would behoove them to make a better selection of sizes available for women of all sizes.
A good riding wardrobe consists of long pants -- jeans, Kevlar or leather, a quality jacket (leather, Kevlar or Cordura), gloves (leather), helmet, and shoes that cover the ankle bone with nice rubber grippy soles. Some people ride in cowboy boots, but they don't bend well and have such slick soles that you can lose footing when putting your feet down at stop signs.
When selecting gear, I always buy from a motorcycle gear manufacturer (check out our manufacturer's list.) When purchasing a non-leather item, make sure it has padding at critical places like elbows and knees. Most leather motorcycle gear is thick cowhide. Fashion leather from department stores is too thin and offers little protection, even if it has been styled to look like motorcycle gear. To check a leather jacket or suit's quality, look for double-stitching and make sure you can't see through the seams by holding them up to the light. Also the less patchwork the better. If the jacket has graphics on it, make sure they are appliqued on top of the basic structure as opposed to quilted together. The more seams, the more places the jacket can rip apart.
A full leather suit or full riding suit affords the most protection when riding. The Aerostich riding suit was my most recent purchase, which allows me to wear dress slacks and shirts to work underneath the suit instead of carting around a whole extra wardrobe in my backpack. Plus, the suit is made out of Cordura complete with knee and elbow pads, which offers great protection. (Aerostich is only one of many brands that make riding suits. Another popular brand in the U.S. is Motosport).
Sometimes I still carry my clothes in my backpack or saddle bags and then change when I get to work (or a job interview. Yes, I've done it.) That way I can keep the advantages of commuting on my bike (like saving time and having fun) AND still maintain a professional wardrobe at work -- heels and all.
The wardrobe issue doesn't end with clothing. What about hair? My friends who have fine, thin hair or are partial to heavy-duty styling get really bad helmet hair. I, of course, have tailored not only my wardrobe to riding, I've tailored my hairstyle to it. Can you say "ponytail?"
Another advantage of motorcycles is that they are easier to park than cars. But that concept isn't foolproof. A few months ago I parked in a parallel spot, rear tire to the curb right behind a new Jeep Cherokee. Since the Jeep had three feet of room in front of it, I felt comfortable parking there. Besides, I was visiting my favorite coffee shop and sitting in the patio area not four feet from the edge of the sidewalk and my bike. My bike is big and pretty -- and it draws lots of attention. My bike drew the attention of the couple who owned the Jeep because they paused to look at and talk about it. They then climbed into their Jeep, started it up, and promptly backed up into my bike. Sigh. The driver (probably to cover his embarrassment) said to me, "You deserved to be hit. You're too small and people in big cars like us can't see you." Despite that convoluted rational, their insurance company had no problem paying to fix my wounded scooter.
Parking structures bring their own set of problems. Most of the ones I park in have a little octagonal sign posted nearby that says "No Motorcycles or pedestrians allowed."
Since I'm always on a bike, where am I supposed to park? This sign is posted in the parking structure at my office, the parking structure at my doctor's office, the parking structure at the shopping mall I frequent. What gives? Don't they want my business -- don't I pay a monthly or hourly fee just like car owners?
However, on other occasions, I am able to park my bike without cost in places where parking is expensive. Often I take the bike specifically for that purpose -- so I can park closer and pay little or no fee.
The theory behind those "No Motorcycles" signs is that the manufacturers and parking companies don't want bikers or pedestrians to sue if they get whacked in the head with the traffic control bars. Or at least I so assume. That did almost happen to me once. I stopped quickly and the bar was right in front of my helmet. I was so glad it didn't hit my bike or my head, though I had my full-face helmet on and probably would have been okay.
My commute is short and my wardrobe casual, so I generally just use a backpack to carry what little paperwork I need. I have an Aerostich brand courier bag, but generally prefer the backpack because it stays put and has a structured back so papers stay flat. The courier bag sometimes slides around. It has soft sides, so even though it's designed to carry paperwork, it really doesn't work well unless you use a briefcase. Occasionally, I worry about having stuff on my back if I go down. It could potentially be a cause of back injury. Because of that, I have explored other methods of hauling my stuff around.
Unless you own a bike that comes with hard luggage (e.g., Honda Gullwing), soft luggage must suffice. Tank bags are nice because they sit on top of the gas tank, without really changing the center of gravity of the bike or affecting riding position. Some models have clear outer pockets to hold maps when touring. Tank bags hold a lot of stuff, but even the magnetic models can slide a bit and scratch the gas tank. For newer bikes where there is a clear coat over the paint job, those scratches don't buff out. A kin of the tank bag is the tail bag which works in pretty much the same way, but is made to go where the passenger seat is. The problem with these, however, is the tendency to overload and severely affect the bike's center of gravity. However, I've never used them so if you have a success story with them let us know.
Saddlebags are my newest love. I recently took a trip where I used them for the first time. Wow, what a difference! No weight on my back, no worries about the gas tank, and when I got where I was going, all my stuff was there with me. Saddlebags are really popular among the cruisers. They have thick leather models with lots of buckles and fringe that go well with the bike's image. Some manufacturers make canvas saddlebags that work for sportbikes too. Regardless of the style of bike, the only consideration with saddlebags is loading them evenly so they don't tilt to one side or the other. Of course, don't overload them or it will affect the bike's center of gravity.
A cargo net was actually my first piece of luggage. They are really easy to use -- just pile stuff on the passenger seat and secure the net right over it. They stretch so you can get quite a bundle under them. This is an excellent way to carry a spare helmet. Cargo nets are also great to keep on the bike for those times you're out and about and suddenly have an unplanned load to take home. And they are cheap, generally less than $10. The downside to cargo nets is that they stretch. When going really fast or over bumps, the load doesn't always stay put because the net has give to it. I once had so much stuff under a net that the weight of it sliding around tore my seat cover. Keep an eye on what you're carrying because if it slips and gets tangled with the rear wheel or chain, trouble will definitely ensue. For this reason, some people aren't fans of cargo nets (and especially their cousins, bungee cords). However, a little caution makes them useful for a large number of items you'll carry.
Lastly, two great ways of carrying stuff are fanny packs and suits with lots of pockets. On a Sunday ride in my full set of leathers I often use a fanny pack to carry money, my license, etc. But for commuting, another reason I love my Aerostich is that it's just chock full of pockets. Pockets are everywhere on this suit -- the arms, the legs, inside and out. They even have Velcro strips on the standard suit where later, if you so choose, you can add more pockets -- like clear ones for maps!
When commuting on a motorcycle, plan ahead for all eventualities. Most towns in this country joke about their weather -- "if you wait 10 minutes, it'll change!" That is an important maxim to ride by. I check the weather report to decide whether or not to pack my rainsuit, to determine the range of the day's temperatures so I know which gear to wear, and I also take into account my path of travel. Recently, I took a weekend ride out to a racetrack in the desert -- hot during the day but also entailing an early morning ride through the Cajon Pass, which was extremely cold. Luckily, I knew that the temperatures would change throughout the day so I prepared my gear accordingly. Conversely, many times I've found myself out late at night with only a tinted faceshield, or rain has come unexpectedly and I'm without my rainsuit, or underdressed in a cold gloom that was supposed to burn off mid-morning but never did. It never fails -- there is always a price to pay for forgetting to take the weather into account.
Another aspect of planning ahead is determining the path of travel beforehand. For instance, I have several different routes I take to work. The first is my freeway route. It is great if I'm out the door early enough and it isn't raining. The next is my rain route. It has the least traffic of my common routes and means there are less obstacles for me to deal with when weather conditions are bad. I have a shopping route that allows me to run errands if the need arises. But I don't take it unless it is absolutely necessary because of the cars pulling in and out of parking lots. There is more potential for accidents on this route. On these routes, I know where all the gas stations, payphones, and bike shops are located, and my proximity to friends' homes -- things that could help me out if I get into trouble.
Flat tires are easy to feel on motorcycles. The second the air starts to leak out of a nail hole, the bike's handling is reduced. The front or back-end starts to wobble and you start looking around wondering what's going on. Sometimes, air leaks out slowly enough to make it to a shop for a plug patch. But alas, sometimes it doesn't.
I've had two flat tires in the past year. Once as I was leaving a mid-day meeting, I saw the nail glaring at me from my rear tire. Since I didn't have a fix-it kit with me (compressed air containers, a plug, glue and scissors), I decided to take my chances and putt slowly to my bike shop for a plug patch. Needless to say I didn't make it. Ironically, just when the tire lost its last bit of air, I pulled to the side of the road. There was a little hole-in-the-wall bike shop where they proceeded to plug patch my tire. Plug patches are okay as they hold well. However, if you ride at high speeds or are taking a long trip, buy a new tire. Also, the rule of thumb is one patch per tire. Patch it once and you're OK; nail number 2, buy a new tire.
The second flat was more irritating. I had just purchased a brand new Dunlop 364 rear for my ZX-7. It was January. The D364 is a soft tire -- nice and sticky for a sportbike ride. They are not high-mileage tires -- the plan was for the tire to last the three months of the rainy season where good tread is especially important. Early one Saturday morning on the way to Pasadena to take part in, of all things, a CPR class, I went around the interchange from the 10 freeway to the 110. As I did so, the back-end wobbled. I just assumed my air pressure was low as in my haste to leave that morning I hadn't checked it. But it wobbled again as I headed up a hill in a straight line! I pulled into the right-most lane and crawled to the next exit. Fortunately there was little traffic at that time. I pulled off and rode to a gas station and found an inch-long gash in the brand new $300 plus tire!! There was no patching that. The tire was toast. I called a friend to come and tow me home. But sometimes these unexpected things happen -- even in a car!
Despite it all -- cars out to get me, lousy fitting gear, less than perfect luggage, parking garages that don't want me -- the fun, challenge and quick commute make it all worthwhile. The joy and feel of the road, the smell of the great outdoors add immeasurable pleasure to my everyday routine.