Confessions of a motorcycle rider

I started riding a motorcycle in the mid-1960s after my maternal grandfather gave me a second-hand Ducati 160cc Junior Monza as a graduation gift. He said he couldn’t afford the VW Beetle that I had wished for, so would I settle for a motorcycle?

I knew nothing about motorcycles, much less about the venerable name that this particular bike quietly bore on its tank. It had been used for two years in remote rural roads by my grandfather’s sales people, and the condition of its tires clearly showed its proletarian past. As I recall, there was nothing special about the bike. Anyone could have attached a sidecar to it and used it as a tricycle, and that would not have been a big deal. I was 20 and in graduate school. Apart from the small monthly stipend that came with my fellowship, I earned no money. The bike gave me mobility at minimal expense; it was a functional vehicle.

Was I expressing a youthful yearning for freedom and identity when I began to ride? Most certainly not. My first bike projected none of the semiotic values that I later learned to look for in motorcycles. Because I was not an enthusiast then, I could not see beyond a bike’s practicality.
I think one becomes a motorcycle enthusiast when one begins to see this vehicle not so much as a means of transport but as a work of art, a technological achievement, a prized possession, a toy. The pleasure that one draws from it comes not so much from its utility as a vehicle but from its production pedigree and meticulous composition as a machine. I know some aficionados who permanently park their motorcycles in their living room as part of the furniture. In the world of motorcycles, that’s a perfectly valid reason for buying one. An enthusiast never buys a bike for sheer utilitarian reasons.

First of all, passionate bikers typically ride not to reach a place. It’s the other way around; they mark a place and plan a route in order to ride. The ride itself is the goal; the destination is only the means. Riders do stop in the middle of nowhere to marvel at the scenery or to smell the flowers—but that’s only a bonus. The main point is the ride. Enthusiasts who ride to work are therefore the exception to the rule. Most bikers ride when they are not working. That’s why they mostly ride on Sundays.
It took a while before I graduated from being just a functional rider. For one, at my salary as a university instructor, I simply could not afford a big bike. Moreover, my kids were growing up, and I dreaded the thought of making them orphans so early. But for some reason, I could not get away from motorcycles.

My next bike was a Honda XL100, essentially a road bike with good suspension that made it suitable for rough roads and river crossings. It was inexpensive and easy to maintain, and I used it to commute to school as well as to navigate mountain trails on weekends. When I became very busy, the Honda languished in the garage like an unwanted pet. I decided that the family driver would have better use for it and sold it to him for a song.
While I stopped riding for many years, I never stopped dreaming of one day getting myself a powerful bike I could ride in the wind. I guess speed is every man’s fantasy. Which one it will be—a plane, a sports car, or a motorcycle—is pure contingency, as it was for me. One day in 2001, I found myself using the back road of P. Tuazon in Cubao to avoid the congestion on Edsa. While waiting for the traffic to move, I casually glanced at the show window of the motorcycle store by the roadside. In that instant, my eyes caught the stunning apparition of the new Ducati 916cc Monster S4, with its bullet gray tank, trellis frame, and bright red wheels. On an impulse, as if drawn by an irresistible force, I pulled over and entered the store. At that precise moment, my youthful memories of those early Ducati rides flashed and fused with an unrelieved thirst for speed and adventure. I could not take my eyes off this exquisite machine. Only then did I realize what Ducati has done to the motorcycle. The following week, I withdrew all my savings and bought the S4. I never looked back since. My only regret is that it took me so long to go back to riding.

My wife was pleasantly shocked to find my new toy parked right in the sala of our home. “Nice!” she exclaimed, and I knew right then and there that I had married the right woman. That evening, we took the Ducati for a spin around the same acacia-lined campus that we used to circle as a young couple on my first Ducati. I am aware that most bikers’ spouses are not as receptive to the idea of a dangerous indulgence like motorcycling. I suppose I am lucky to have married someone who could appreciate the thrill of living dangerously. I didn’t want to have all that thrill for myself however. In the beginning, my wife would ride pillion with me. Later, I decided to get her a lighter bike so she could ride on her own with ease.

Until recently, I have mostly ridden alone, combining motorcycling with bird watching. Some think these are contradictory pursuits. In my case, they go together. On some weekends, I start out early and ride my motorcycle to the Makiling Botanical Garden in Los Baños. After a quick breakfast, I take out my binoculars and walk up the ascending trail of this tranquil bird sanctuary. It is always a precious moment. Alone with my senses, I track the slightest movement among the trees as it rustles the leaves. It is not so different from riding—alone on my bike at 160 kph, I scan the smallest objects in a fleeting field of vision just before they melt into a blur.
These days I ride with a small group that calls itself “Hombres.” It is a non-exclusive group. There are virtually no requirements for membership, except a basic capacity to look after a buddy. We ride all brands of motorcycles. We like to think of ourselves as a band of grown-up men from diverse backgrounds, driven by varying levels of sociability and madness. The average age is about 50. The oldest in our group is a 76-year-old Pinoy version of Arnold Schwarzenegger who drives a 1,000cc sports bike. He sets the standard for the life-span of a good rider.
Our recent trips have taken us to Bicol, Panay, Bukidnon, Ilocos, Subic, and Baguio. These long strenuous rides on sometimes rough terrain have made it necessary for me to get a second bike, the 1000cc Aprilia Caponord, a dual-purpose tourer. On ordinary weekends, when we drive to Angeles or to Tagaytay for breakfast and camaraderie, I still prefer the sportier and faster Ducati.

I try not to ride on city streets except when I am going or coming from elsewhere outside Metro Manila. You don’t see big bikes weaving in and out of city traffic. They lack the suicidal agility of the “underbones” and are likely to overheat in traffic.

I still live on the UP Diliman campus, where I have taught for 40 years. Yet I rarely ride a motorcycle to school. A naked Ducati or a red giant trailie like the Caponord attracts too much attention in an academic parking lot. I make it a point however to ride around the campus every night after the school’s main gates, except one, have closed. The quietest hours are those just before midnight, when the cool air is softly scented with ylang-ylang and dama de noche blossoms. The roving guards already know me. I can almost hear what they say when they see me pass: “There goes the professor again, racing in the dark against himself.” It’s not easy to explain it—this touch of deviance and danger that gives texture to our unilinear lives.