I was going to write ‘we are dancing’ but the thought of me dancing makes me giggle, along with everyone else who knows me. Maybe we are figure skating or flying, soaring like birds perhaps. Metaphors fail me, but what I am a part of right now is all about fluid movement; a deliciously rare dynamic thing that too few of us sample as often as we should.
Caught up in it, it’s almost distracting as I try to stop my mind from flicking through an index of words, trying to isolate just one to describe what’s happening here. Distractions are not welcome on a racetrack. My mind is like a terrier at the best of times, always running off and chasing after things it shouldn’t. I give it a good telling off and focus on the job at hand.
I am five laps in to a twenty lap race and I am caught in a dogfight with a well-matched rider who is every bit as determined as I am to break away and secure second place. First place is long gone, in no small part because we two riders are locking horns at every turn, passing and re-passing, letting the fight drag at us and eat away at our lap times. Second place disappears when my old racing mate Ricardo appears from nowhere, slices between the two of us and simply buggers off into the distance while we continue to fight. This is slowing us down. Now we’re locked in a battle for third.
But when we’re not carrying out eye-watering undertaking moves on the brakes, I am struck by the flow of it all. His moves match mine and mine his. We tip into turns, brush apexes and flick-flack through the esses as though one were the shadow of the other, connected through shared intent and a narrow tunnel of focus seen through squinted eyes.
The writer in me escapes again for a moment as it searches for that word. My nemesis senses my brief lapse in concentration and somehow slides around the outside of me in a scalpel-sharp arc at a speed that makes me catch my breath. In the time it takes me to furrow my brow he has pulled out two bike lengths on me, and then three. Disappointment and frustration blunt the edge of my determination for a moment and I shake my head and shoulders in an attempt to physically shrug it off – I know that optimism and the belief I can get him back are as important as anything else right now. But the gap widens to five bike lengths and then ten as my opponent sniffs the wake of the bike in front and pulls out all the stops for a shot at second place.
Back in third now I imagine little dents appearing in the sides of my fuel tank as I squeeze my knees and elbows into it, doing my utmost to streamline my gangly frame. A spark of hope is still alive in me, and a couple of laps later it kindles itself into a tiny flame again as I convince myself the gap has grown no wider…has it perhaps even shrunk just a bit? I watch the braking markers like a hawk and the flame burns bright again when one lap further on I judge that I’m gaining. Ahead of me it seems that as the hope dwindles out of my opponent in the realisation he won’t be able to catch the second place bike before the race ends, that same hope travels through the slipstream back towards me. I can taste it on the air now. Adrenalin washes through tired muscles in a tingling wave. It’s back on again.
Now my priority is to not be seen by the rider ahead. In my mind I will him not to look back as I reel in the metres, judging that I have maybe four more laps to make my move. He doesn’t look back, and soon I am tucked in so close to his rear wheel that he wouldn’t be able to see me even if he did. It’s time to make a move. He leaves the door open into the esses and I jump through on the brakes, forcing a pretty nasty pass and almost allowing myself to be re-passed before we’re even through the esses themselves. But from here on I ride a rudely defensive line for the remaining two laps, and finish in front by a whisker. I don’t think I’ve ever fought so hard for third place at a lowly club race. The event won’t even make it into the local rural newspaper, won’t so much as make a ripple. But I could shout from the mountain tops right now. It feels like a win.
Heading back down pit lane the bike grumbles, misses and complains, seemingly unhappy at suddenly being asked to idle along. I rumble through the paddock slowly weaving between wandering spectators, ride into the pit shed and slump onto the tank, shaking a bit as the last of the adrenalin burns out and fatigue falls onto my shoulders like a thick, heavy blanket. I know my legs aren’t steady enough to get me off the bike just yet, so I wait a minute or two, then swing a leg over as my racing mates arrive and help with stands and tyre warmers. I find my water bottle and collapse into a chair while the happy post-race chatter ensues. My mate Ricardo took second, I took third. I set my fastest time on lap fifteen. We’re wearing grins like cracked pies. I’m smiling, staring and drifting off a bit when the word hits me.
I laugh involuntarily, but there’s no denying it. That is what united myself and the rider I was competing with for the full twenty laps of the race we’ve just ridden. I shake my head at the unlikely truth of it.
In the hours to come I ponder the word, my life spent mostly at odds with it. Grace and I have always been an unlikely match. From my shambolic walk to my gawky, gangling presence in a room; Grace would surely turn her head and look for another dance partner. If ever we were paired up in the real world, you can rest assured that I’d step on Grace’s feet and make her blush with embarrassment. Grace hangs out with other guys – the swimmers, the runners, the athletes.
So it seems doubly unlikely that my only flirtations with Grace have come to me via a machine. The motorcycle. Where so many others work together with surfboards, guitars…those conventionally accepted accessories of Grace, the clumsiest man alive – me – can tempt Grace to dance only when astride a noisy, smelly motorcycle. It’s an unlikely pairing, and it’s one that until now I’ve struggled to define, but now I think I see it. The two wrongs making a right. A machine and I uniting to visit Grace. For me, certainly, there is no other way.
I hasten to add that I am by no means any more graceful than the next person on a bike, in fact I’d suggest that my efforts look positively bumbling in comparison to many others. But they’re the best I can do, and they make me happy.
Away from the track I can filter through the photos that follow the day’s racing and see it more clearly in some than others. I smile to myself when I recognise it in shots here and there – it’s easy to see when Grace is riding with me. The angles and body language simply add up. I suspect the lap times would add up, too.
In his excellent book ‘The Upper Half of The Motorcycle’ Bernt Spiegel writes about how a motorcycle is only half of a machine without a rider; the rider is legitimately the ‘upper half’ of a machine that only truly functions as it should when a rider steps aboard and juggles a complex set of controls, as well as bringing balance to the equation. When you objectively consider how many separate controls need to be correctly modulated in order to make it all work, you might convince yourself that ‘smooth’ could never be a word to describe the outcome. Yet watch any experienced rider get on a motorcycle, leave his parking spot and bring the bike up to speed from a standstill – you can see the moment Grace steps aboard.
I didn’t need racing to unlock it all for me. I think you can experience Grace any time you ride just about any bike, in dozens of different situations. And of course there are millions of others who have made the discovery I have, and possibly nearly as many who have defined it more effectively. If you’re a rider you’ll relate, you’ll understand that kick you feel when you and your machine are working perfectly, as one. Maybe you’ve kindled this emotion through other means yourself, but I place special value on it, simply because I’m not able to experience it by any other means.
Like her cousin Dignity, Grace these days seems to be rarer than ever. Perhaps that’s why when you suggest that motorcycles embody Grace, the wider world – those heathen car drivers – will mostly laugh in your face. Smelly machines? Bikies? Grace? Never.
But truth is truth, and any car driver who has ever been passed on a winding road by a bike and paused to watch the rider smoothly slalom away along the sinuous tarmac ahead knows the longing. While the car grinds grimly along, Grace is right there on the bike up ahead, fluid and free, revelling in every turn.
So here’s to Grace. Although I didn’t recognise her at the time, I think I first met her when I was eight years old. The moment I stopped wrestling my 80cc mini bike and let her step aboard, it all just seemed right somehow. That feeling of everything working together has never lost its appeal to me; it’s a kind of magic trick I never get tired of.
I know that beyond the noise and the discomfort, the risk, the cold and all the other trivia, Grace is the biker’s best kept secret, the feeling that spreads a smile across our faces every time we set forth on two wheels. I sincerely hope you’ll pause to consider what a blessing she is next time you ride.
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