Safe and Sound: Learning to Ride Motorcycles with Harley-Davidson

August 20, 2013

Duncan Cooper on his first motorcycle trip.

My dad has always said he wanted a motorcycle, and, growing up, it was a half-joke between my mom and I to loudly tell him no, that he had responsibilities. When Harley-Davidson invited me on their Taste of Freedom tour—five athletes and artists learning how to ride, accompanied by four journalists doing the same, culminating in a couple-hundred mile trip in California—I agreed in part because I felt I owed my dad the chance to live vicariously. And I thought it would be a funny story, because me on a bike just seems so wrong. I don’t even feel safe in cars.

After taking drivers ed this spring, the nine of us on the Tour re-congregated in LA for the three-day ride to Big Bear and back—east on the Angeles Crest Highway through the San Gabriel Mountains, up and around the San Bernadino National Forest then home on the freeway. If you think that’s a lot for nine novices who, a few months ago, couldn’t tell their ass from a fuel valve, then you're right. In the very first turn, as we rolled out of a Burbank parking lot, one guy lurched and swung troublingly close to a cement wall. He said he'd driven six miles since April. I was worried for everybody.

Three Harley employees and a motorcycle-riding photographer escorted the group, watchful pros spread evenly throughout the long line. Lingering near the back, feeling small on my 550-pound, 883-CC red Sportster, I got nervous when a light turned yellow and braked when I probably could've gone through. I smiled when I stopped. Stopping was an option.

Soon we were deep in the Angeles State Forest, where the speed kicked up and the stops dropped away. I weaseled to the front of the line, because it made my head feel screwed on tighter when I could see the white helmet of the Harley person who was leading us, and not just amateurs like me. But I felt more confident, too. This was the fastest I’d ever gone, and in the most difficult terrain, and I was feeling fine. The highway zig-zagged through what felt like a sandbox, as if someone big had been digging in their heels to make the San Gabriel Mountains, and I pulled the accelerator as hard as I could after I rolled out of each turn. The photographer rode around between us, weaving. He stood on his foot pegs, swung one leg under him so his shin lay across the seat, then rocked the bike side to side to steer hands-free, spinning around to take photos. It felt reassuring to see someone taking more risks than I was.

In the afternoon we stopped at a mountainside restaurant in the style of a log cabin, the only building we'd seen for hours. Everybody only wanted water. We sat outside for a long time, where a few older guys were lounging in expensive-looking, full-body motorcycle gear that had been unzipped to their navels. Some of us stretched on nearby benches, and some lay on their backs on big logs that'd been installed as bumpers in front of parking spaces. One of the old guys warned us about some fallen rocks up ahead, then lit a joint.

Someone asked the daredevil photographer what it was like making out with Lana Del Rey. I thought, now here's something for me. Apparently he had been hired along with a bunch of similarly grisly bikers as extras for her "Ride" music video. As he tells it, the production people had recruited actors to play the guys Lana would make out with in the video, but she took one look at the actors, and one look at the bikers, and sent the actors packing. As the sun set on the day’s shoot, he said, they all got drunk and the director pulled him aside and told him, "Tonight, this is your girl," a phrasing which made me a little uncomfortable. Someone asked if he had a girlfriend and he said no, and I wondered what I would've done. This is him, Josh Kurpius:

We left the single-lane mountain highway for the freeway proper, which initiated a basically unending sequence of nerve-wracking motorcycle situations for me. We didn't go as fast as most bikers, but even 70MPH feels physically oppressive, at least the first time you do it. Next time you're in a car on the highway, roll down your window and do "talk to the hand" until you're bored; after you bring your hand in and cruise along for 20 minutes, imagine how you'd feel if your body was still out there pushing, disagreeing with the wind. I stared ahead and thought about nothing.

As we got closer to Big Bear, we exited onto the squiggling hills of San Bernadino. One road went downward and split asymmetrically, like the top part of a K. We were supposed to go right, but I didn't downshift, and the bike's big gears began propelling me into some nether-space where I shouldn't be. Feeling like a toppling bowl in the moment of spilling, rather than slam on the brakes or curl wide into the other lane—thankfully empty of oncoming cars—I said "fuck” and unconsciously touched my right foot to the pavement. The bike wobbled once and I steered onto the straight-ahead, incorrect path. After 50 dazed yards, I turned around, and everyone was gone. I had been at the back again, second-to-last in the line, and an illustrator named Ray Frenden was the only person who saw me; he had sped ahead to get someone who worked for Harley to wait, and the three of us drove the final 10 minutes to the hotel in a separate, deflated pack. In the lobby, my whole body was shaking, and on a registration card I absentmindedly wrote down a phone number that hasn't been mine in eight years, my parents’.

When we walked into a bar that night, the DJ was playing "Love Shack." I posted an Instagram video of me standing on the dance floor, shaking my head. It probably seemed like I was being snobbish about the song, but my feelings were more complicated than that. Harley's tour had promised freedom, and I think for me that couldn't have happened without feeling terrified first, to go in the moment of my mess-up literally out of my own control. Of course I regained it, and the guides taught me how not to do that again; I definitely didn't then, but now I feel somehow fulfilled that my mistake happened. In New York a few weeks later, I often pause on the sidewalk to examine people's parked bikes, compelled to look but unsure if I'll take a ride like that again. I bet I will. But being in that bar that night was so strange. When I was little, I cowered when it thundered and rained, and my parents always played “Love Shack” to calm me down.

Safe and Sound: Learning to Ride Motorcycles with Harley-Davidson