Lockdown and the lure of the open road

  • James Pentland on his 1999 Triumph triple motorcycle at his home in Hatfield, Tuesday. Sadly, a recent run-in with a car means the bike’s riding days are probably over. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • James Pentland with his Triumph motorcycle at his home in Hatfield on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • James Pentland with his Triumph motorcycle at his home in Hatfield, Tuesday, June 30, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Night managing editor
Published: 7/5/2020 3:38:42 PM

Spring can feel like it’s a long time coming, and it was like that this year. After being cooped up since March like everyone else, I was looking forward to the change of season and busting out the motorcycle, a perfect antidote to pandemic immobility.

I’m not an expert rider or a gearhead, never raced or rode trail bikes. I don’t have the familiarity with the engine’s myriad parts and functions that I have with writing and reporting, more’s the pity. With a longtime interest, but having owned nothing more than a balky BSA Bantam and a moped in younger days in my native Scotland, I started my proper biking days nearing 40. I’m not an outlaw biker. I’m a generally sedate editor enjoying a 25-year summer fling.

When the weather warms and the days lengthen, it’s time for that rush of fresh air, for getting out into the changing countryside and exploring from the (relative) comfort of my 1999 Triumph triple. The 50 mph country roads, the winding, wooded hill climbs, the 70 mph main arteries following the river valley contours, the deserted back-country lanes leading to secret places — they’re all there for the taking.

On hot days, it’s a way to take the edge off, like bathing in cool air. Other times, it’s like flying. Racing through the sun and shade, sweet scents like lilac, pine or hay waft out from the verges. At night, there’s a little more anxiety — always scanning for a random pothole, or a cat, opossum or coyote on a nocturnal ramble — but it’s still exhilarating, slicing through the silvery light and shadows, soothed by the steady drone from the twin pipes, coming on the ridge silhouetted against a sky lit by the rising strawberry moon.

If it isn’t blasphemous to say, this is God’s country for exploring by motorcycle. Western Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire — and no doubt Maine, too — offer an endless bounty of scenic roads and sparse traffic. You might have a destination or just have all day to ride a big circuit, visiting friends, stopping in some favored haunts. The balmy months of summer bring pretty dependable warmth, although I’ve paid for underestimating the chill factor in the Green Mountains even in July and August, and avoiding rain and thunderstorms takes care and luck.

You can travel by yourself, take a friend as a pillion, ride with others as a group. There’s a camaraderie, a sense of fellowship among motorcyclists. You’ll see it in the wave, the bikers’ salute, a simple acknowledgment, and you’ll know it if you’re ever stuck by the side of the road. Riders always stop for a brother or sister in trouble.

Help from strangers

I’m going to generalize and say parents and spouses don’t like motorbikes. There’s many a would-be rider who submits to this conviction, because it cannot logically be denied. My mother worked for a time as a radiographer in a North London hospital, and she was only too aware of what coming off a bike at speed could do to a body. It’s important for car drivers to pay attention and anticipate; it’s critical for motorcyclists. You can control your own actions, but you cannot control those of other motorists.

This reality was brought home to me on a sunny afternoon a few weeks back when an oncoming sedan turned left across my path on Sunderland Road in Amherst, and I was unable to avoid a collision. A sickening thud, disbelief, and I’m face-shield down on the pavement. Heaven be thanked, I’m not badly injured.

As it happens, we were right outside the Amherst Survival Center. In an instant, sure hands were helping me up and over to the curb where I could sit, my nose streaming blood. My lady rescuer stayed with me, fetching tissues and calming my in-shock tendency to shrug the whole thing off. Others gathered around while people came over from the Cowles lot, taking care of the call to police and offering to provide witness statements. Someone brought over two bottles of water. The police and ambulance came, the EMTs checked me over professionally, the vehicles were towed. I had no one I could call to pick me up, but I was able to clean up and wait at the Survival Center for a free bus that would take me back over the river and a masked car ride home from Gazette photo editor Carol Lollis.

All the time I felt really surprised that, in this time of social distancing, of wariness of strangers, of totally understandable paranoia, people would come so readily to help me, a stranger in a wreck, in the way humans need, with touch and closeness. The first thing I thought as I was helped up was, I could be contagious, you probably shouldn’t be doing this. At least I still had my face shield on. I was moved by how they and many others took care of me, and I’m moved every time I think about it.

The Triumph, sadly, is an unhappy beast these days. She doesn’t look bad, but there’s enough front-end damage for the insurance company to give me total value. I haven’t decided what to do about it, but I’ve no wish to spend the rest of the summer bikeless.

I’ve whiled away plenty an hour viewing photos and videos of old bikes online, checking out the specs and the fan groups. Now that I’m in the market, it’s a daily practice. There’s not a whole lot that interests me, so I’m digging deeper into the possibilities. Maybe an old Vulcan, an enjoyably throaty cruiser. Mmm, a black BMW R65, a reliable classic. That Honda 919 looks nifty. And so on. There’s the satisfaction of indulging a boyish enthusiasm combined with the tantalizing possibility that that inviting-looking machine really is $3,400 worth of fun, and then some. I live in hope.

For our coronavirus times, motorcycling seems like an appropriate enough activity. It’s risky, but the risk is part of the appeal. Sometimes, the best part is just getting home safely.

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