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Of Gift Horses and Good Things

Life is full of happy moments. You just have to remember them

September 2019. I’m standing in my shed, soaking wet. Water has found its way into my GoreTex riding suit, settling in the crotch. Feet squelch in “waterproof” boots. I breathe in the oily steam of rain evaporating on my bike’s engine. Houston sees more annual rainfall than Cardiff, but somehow the rain back home never wore at my soul the way it does here.

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I guess that’s because the rain back home fell in such fascinating and dramatic ways, dumping out in great storms, transforming streets into rivers for kids to splash around in, providing them an opportunity to learn the meaning of interesting words like “giardia” and “cryptosporidium.” In Wales the rain never stops. It’s never warm. Nothing dries. Wood warps. Mortar dissolves. And a black, unyielding sadness seeps into your lungs.

I’m toweling my bike, engine running to warm the shed. I close one of the doors to trap heat, then contort in the shed’s small space, cursing as water pours from my hair or suit into spots I’ve just dried. This terrible ache. I wish I could just… stop.

I am so tired of being whatever I’ve become. Or, more correctly, what I’ve failed to become. I close the other shed door, sit down next to my running bike and start crying.

Statistics show that over the past decade mental health issues have been on the rise in the United Kingdom, affecting as many as 1 in 4. When it comes to depression, women are reportedly more likely to suffer, but men more likely to kill themselves – especially those my age. Men aged 40-44 have the highest suicide rate by a good margin. The rate is even higher in the United States. In part because American men have better access to guns, which are brutally effective and offer little opportunity for second-guessing, but there is, too, something about the American experience that places expectations on a person that can be crushing. Expectations that manifest in the Protestant tradition of self-censure; no one’s specifically telling you that you should achieve this or that – it’s something you feel emanating from your bones. Greatness is expected.

For American men of a certain age greatness is also nebulous. Its definition has changed multiple times within their lifetimes. They don’t really know what they’re aiming for, they simply feel the emptiness, the ache, the overwhelming sense of failure, and the rushing exhaustion of age – the sense that whatever they could have done they won’t do now. It’s too late.

I’m an American in Britain. A few weeks from now, I’ll find myself in a therapy group full of men my age. There will be one woman who, in fact, used to be a man. We’ll meet each Thursday for eight weeks. I’ll bring mince pies to our final session. We’ll promise to keep in touch. I won’t hear from any of them again.

~V~

February 2020. I’m riding a Harley-Davidson Street Bob, squinting into the sun. It’s 21ºC, warm enough that I have opened my jacket slightly to let air into my four layers of clothing. I still don’t fully understand the point of Harley-Davidson having brought me here. I still don’t care. Gift horses, man.

We are in the dusty Cordilleras Béticas mountains of southern Spain, speeding rapidly toward the coast. We’ve found our way to a road wide enough to have marked lanes, which snakes in swooping broad curves to sea level. Road signs suggest we ride these corners at 60 kmh; we take them at 120. The landscape stretches vast and unhindered, the blue Alboran Sea blurring into the horizon.

“Look! Look at me!” I shout out to my past self. “Look at you! Look at what you get to do! Hang in there, because this moment is waiting for you!”

~III~

January 2020. I’m standing next to a bomb-proof building, sheltering from spitting winter rain beneath its small concrete canopy. Shivering uncontrollably, I hunch my shoulders and turn my body to block wind from interrupting my phone call.

A Non-Disclosure Agreement means I’m not able to mention on social media where I work, which is strange because one part of the business is a tourist attraction. The part where I work, though, is a 40-acre secure site ringed by two layers of barbed-wire fence, cameras pointed in every angle and 24-hour security. The business is 1,100 years old but the current site was established only 50 years ago, during the height of the Cold War. So, most of the buildings are designed to withstand a substantial blast, with walls about five feet thick.

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It’s hardly a run-of-the-mill workplace; and I haven’t even told you about the lasers and walnuts. My bosses are kind, my coworkers goodhearted. We get a fair number of holidays and it’s a rare Friday that someone hasn’t brought cakes. There is covered motorcycle parking, a gym that costs just £4 a month, a coffee shop, and a canteen run by women who remember the foods I like and drop by my desk to tell me when they’re on the menu: “Alright, love? We ‘ave that chicken madras on again today. I know you fancy it, so I thought I’d let you know, like.”

It’s not a bad place to be. It’s just not where I want to be. I got this job to help me deal with the financial mess that came from attempting to do my own thing without adequate resources, planning or expertise. Over the last year or so the scale of that mess has become undeniable. Soul-destroyingly undeniable. In turn, keeping this job has felt more pressing, more necessary, more confining; I need this gig. I feel anxiety and fear that the ache will cripple me too much – make me too inefficient, too withdrawn – and one day they’ll pull me aside and say: “Chris, this just isn’t working out. We’re going to have to let you go.”

The nebulous thing that I tell myself I should be, rather than being whatever it is I am, feels impossibly far away, and I suffer more the slings and arrows of life. I’m cold all the time. I get overwhelmed by really simple things. And sometimes I wish so much I could just stop.

I’ve dealt with mental health issues most of my adult life. I call it “swingy-uppy-downy broken brain” or just “the ache.” Others have chosen terms like bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder. The NHS tries to stick to “low mood” because it’s broad and noncommittal. When you’re an organization that has no money I suppose it’s best to come up with terms that make it seem like the things you’re not treating aren’t that big of a deal.

Whatever’s wrong with me, it comes and goes. Last summer, after my parents came to visit and for the first time in my life I cried when saying goodbye to them, it hit hard. There was the process of quickly coming undone, then months of therapies, therapists, counselors, doctors, psychiatrists, meditation, apps, books, and pills. So many pills. Pills that made me sleep for 17 hours in a stretch, pills that wouldn’t let me sleep at all, pills that made me clench my jaw so hard I cracked a tooth, pills that made me dizzy, and pills that make me constipated. We’re sticking with those last ones for now; sanity demands I eat a lot of fruit.

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The thing that’s worked best, though, or perhaps the thing I’ve enjoyed most, is the act of rebuilding a good memory. The ache destroys memory, stealing away huge chunks of your life. In particular you don’t remember the good parts. Soon you’re convinced your whole existence has been an endless string of misery and misstep. So, the trick is to find some positive memory and build it out as much as you can – fully remind yourself that good things do happen. They have happened. They will happen again.

Don’t just say, “my wedding day was nice;” create the whole moment in your mind. The church, the taste and smell of barbecue, the sun glistening on the the bay, the feel of your suit, the sun stinging your skin, the sweat on your friends’ faces, the feel of the chair you’re sitting in, the sound of your wife’s laughter, the soreness in your face from smiling…

In the moments when I’m lamenting my underdeveloped moto-journalism career I like to remind myself of its high points. Riding to Prague on a Street Bob, for example – that was a career highlight. Hell, that was a life highlight.

Standing outside a bomb-proof building in the soggy blowing grey of Welsh January I am talking to one of my comrades from that trip. (I’m not able to have this call inside, by the way, because the walls of bomb-proof buildings are too thick for mobile phone signal to penetrate.) Uncle Trev is part of Harley-Davidson’s media relations team. He likes to portray himself as a miserable S.O.B. but occasionally betrays this image by doing considerate things like getting in touch just to see how you are. I assume that’s the point of this phone call, if not simply because I know Harley doesn’t have anything new to promote at the moment. Or so I thought.

“Harley’s hosting the Triple S event in Andalucía in a few weeks,” Trev tells me. “The event is all about the Harley-Davidson experience: the bikes, riding, having fun on and off road, customization, new tech and so on. Day 1 is about reintroducing people to the versatility of the Sportster platform, culminating in riding to dinner on a mob of customized Sportsters. That’s what it says here: ‘a mob.’ I didn’t write that bit. Day 2 is about ‘power and style’ – I didn’t write that, either. The morning sees you heading out on the performance Softails. So, the Fat Bob, Low Rider S, and your old friend, the Street Bob. After lunch you’ll head to a hill climb, riding modified Street 750s. There might also be some time for you to take the new LiveWire out for a spin. Nice hotel. Good food. The usual Harley thing. Sound like something you’d be interested in doing?”

“You had me at the part where we go to Spain.”

“You sure?” he asks. “I know you’ve got a real job these days. You’re able to make the time?”

“Trev, I am standing here shivering with cold in the pissing wet and you’re offering to send me to southern Spain,” I say. “If you had called and said: ‘We want you to go to Spain to race Marquez and if he wins he gets to punch you in the face,’ I would still be saying yes. Because I would rather be nursing a broken nose at a Spanish bar than be here.”

~IV~

February 2020. I’m sitting in the restaurant of the Hotel Los Dólmenes on the outskirts of Antequera, 35 miles north of Málaga. It is late and I have been traveling all day. It’s a dry evening – cool but not cold. This place has a certain truckstop quality and I suspect there’s been a snafu in planning; this isn’t the four-star hotel promised in our itinerary. But gift horses, man. Don’t question the good things that are given to you; odds are, you don’t deserve them.

You wouldn’t question this food, anyway. Served by a butch woman who insists upon communicating to the group through me because I can correctly pronounce Spanish words, it is incredible. Custom builder Charlie Stockwell and I have ordered plates of barbecued lamb, goat and octopus, splitting it with Tony Peries of Sykes Harley-Davidson. Uncle Trev isn’t here, but 7-foot-tall punmaster Geoff Hill is; in Prague we used Geoff as a point of reference – it’s impossible to lose him in a crowd. Harley man Dan Lovis is here – he and I have frequently bonded over the charming stupidity of our dogs – as is former Triumph man Paul Lilly. Paul and I have spent many hours stuck in airports together and I’m delighted to see him again. Press events are always like this for me.Like summer camp: “Here are my old friends! Here are my new friends!”

Chris Cope on 2020 Harley-Davidson Fat Bob

I still don’t fully understand the point of our being here. I’m not complaining; I just can’t quite see the “hook” from a PR perspective. Every bike that I will ride over the next two days is a platform I’ve ridden before. Platforms that aren’t new. The Sportster platform hasn’t really changed since 1993; the Street platform hasn’t changed since 2015/16; the Softail platform hasn’t changed since 2017.

I also don’t understand how Harley-Davidson has managed to convince a dozen of its customers to allow their expensively customized Sportsters to be shipped to Andalucía so a bunch of strangers can ride the hell out of them. Who would agree to such a thing? You imagine mafia-style strong-arm tactics: three Fiat Panda-sized dudes show up at the door to explain that the MoCo expects their “cooperation.” Are the owners of these bikes OK? Has anyone actually heard from them lately?

But as I say: don’t question the good things that are given to you. The next morning, the Sportsters are lined up in the sun for us to choose. There are all sorts of themes on display: classic custom, street tracker, scrambler, cafe racer, post-apocalyptic zombie chaser. I immediately run to an Instagram-famous bike known as Phat G. I’m drawn to it for the same reason everyone else is avoiding it: huge ape-hanger ‘bars. Noting my equally fervent proselytization of the ape-hangered Street Bob, Tony observes: “What we’ve learned today is that Chris has no fucking taste.”

Perhaps not. I love a stupid bike. I mean, motorcycles are inherently silly/stupid things, anyway. Imagine pitching the idea now: “I’ve come up with a vehicle that falls over if left unattended. It’s a big metal box of explosions that you hold on to – no seatbelt, no airbag, no crumple zones. Just instant death or disfigurement if you do even the smallest things wrong. Brilliant, right?”

Phat G is gloriously stupid. Built around a Sportster Forty-Eight, which, in itself is probably Harley’s stupidest bike, it has grips as thick as beer bottles, a colossal 240mm-wide rear tire, an ear-splitting exhaust and a paint scheme that is about as subtle as a flaming cat. Then there’s that engine. The bike’s 1200cc Evolution V-twin engine visibly shudders at idle – like it’s trying to escape the frame – its vibrations shaking your insides. I’ll admit I’m not 100-percent sure I’d want this sort of thing every day, all the time, for the rest of my life. Maybe only 99.7 percent. But on this day, damn it, I am in love. This sort of idiocy makes life worth living.

And I had forgotten just how tractable the Sportster engine is. You look at an engine that, in essence, hasn’t changed since 1984, the five-gear transmission, the air/oil cooling, the pushrods, etc., and you think: “Oh, hell, this thing is going to be shit.” But then you get out on a twisting road and you discover it’s exactly what you want – springy torque, usable power. The bike doesn’t fight you. It doesn’t surge at urban pace like so many modern bikes. Even when hampered by the slightly odd fists-and-feet-in-the-wind riding position and sluggish cornering of Phat G’s customization, the engine stands out as a wonderful thing.

Riding along, my laughter hidden by the engine’s thunderous roar, I find myself daydreaming about trading in my Bonneville for a Roadster or Iron 1200. It occurs to me that perhaps this is the point of Harley’s bringing me here. Not to convince me personally to buy a Harley, but to remind journalists and bloggers of the company’s character – to reset the narrative.

This year is set to be a big one for Milwaukee’s most famous motorcycle company. The Pan America is rumored for press launch in August; the Bronx may be scheduled to appear in finished form at Intermot or EICMA; there are very quiet rumblings of something else in December. Add this to the recently released LiveWire and Harley-Davidson is speeding down roads it’s hitherto been hesitant to take. Paired with news of struggling sales, I could see how some people would misinterpret this shift toward new genres as an admission of past failure. As if these new bikes are Harley’s way of saying: “OK, the stuff we’ve been making up until now isn’t very good.” But, in fact, it is good – incredibly good. Especially within the parameters of what a cruiser is and should be.

Or maybe that’s not at all what Harley’s trying to convey. It doesn’t matter. I’m riding a motorcycle in the sun, man.

~VII~

April 2020. I’m sitting on the couch with my wife, sharing a bottle of red wine. Bright orange and pink sunset reflects off the face of the church across the street.

I haven’t set foot in my bomb-proof office in almost five weeks, having been the first to volunteer when the government suggested people work from home. The Stay at Home order – still in effect – came a week later, and I was put on furlough a week after that. I’m now paid to sit at home.

It’s also been four weeks since the psychiatrist decided to increase the dosage on my antidepressants. I can’t honestly say whether they’re working, though I also can’t say they’re not working. The weather is unseasonably warm and dry. I spend my days writing articles for TMO and taking my dog on long walks. I do my best not to think through the spring and summer to when the cold and dark will return.

Jenn works on a COVID-19 ward at her hospital. She’s had stretches where at least four people a day die on her ward – not the whole hospital, just her ward. With some patients there is nothing you can do but pray they go with as little pain as possible. This sort of thing would crush me but Jenn is interminably strong. In the mornings I look at my little egg-shaped pills and feel silly and embarrassed for needing them.

We have some good friends who live on the other side of town, about 10 minutes walk. We give them a call on Skype and go through another bottle of wine “with” them. Afterward, Jenn joins me in taking the dog out for his nighttime walk. The evening is cool and pleasant. There are stars overhead.

When we fall into bed later Jenn rolls into my arms and says: “We’re pretty lucky.”

“Yeah,” I say, kissing her. “We are.”

~VI~

February 2020. I’m sitting on a customized Harley-Davidson Street 750, modified for off-road use: robust suspension, chunky tires, relocated pegs, and the bike’s chimney-sized exhaust removed to allow a menacing snarl that feels like a health and safety violation waiting to happen. I’m feeling stupidly competitive.

We’ve spent the morning riding Softails down from the mountains. After putting in enough time on the Low Rider S that I felt confident in being able to do a write up on the thing (Just a few hours on the bike was enough since I’ve ridden six other Softails, including spending five months on one with effectively the same chassis) I ran covetously toward a Street Bob. From the moment I was in its saddle I felt comically happy, giggling, then hugging the tank and shouting: “Oh, you beautiful, stupid thing!”

“There’s something wrong with you,” Paul had said, shaking his head and smiling. He’s right. I can’t help it.

Eventually our ride brought us here: a dirt patch in the middle of nowhere. Harley has set up a small American-style hill climb. I had thought there was only one kind of hill climb, but apparently a British hill climb consists of speeding up a winding paved road. I am so glad we’re not doing that. That would require skill. But wildly tearing straight up a hill with the throttle as wide open as you dare – I can manage that. I can do stupid. And I’m not afraid of crashing here. I am quite experienced at crashing Harley-Davidson’s Street models. I’ve done it multiple times and I’m happy to do it again. I’ll admit I take a certain glee in crashing bikes I don’t own.

Perhaps anticipating I would have such an attitude, Harley has set up the course so that a rider’s time is not actually recorded until he or she takes a sharp left at the top of the hill. It forces you to stay in control. So, some amount of skill is required, but not so much that I haven’t managed to hold a top three slot throughout the previous runs. We’ve been given three test runs, followed by three timed runs – our best timed run to determine our ultimate standing.

After the first two timed runs I am in second place, behind Charlie. This is an excellent result. Charlie is an amateur racer. I am a moron. That I am set to share the podium with him is, quite possibly, my life’s greatest achievement. If I pull this off I’ll be telling the nurses about it in the old folks home when I’m 103.

So, of course, now is when I’ve decided to switch tactics. Rather than just trying my best to ride quickly and under control, which seems to have been working out for me thus far, I’ve decided it would be so much more badass if I were to just drop the clutch and blast the throttle right out of the gate. Then, when I get to the top of the hill, jam the rear brake, swing the back out for the corner, and fly through the timing spot hard on the throttle. That’s how it works in my mind, at least.

In reality what happens is this: I open the clutch too quickly and the bike stutters slightly as I’m cracking the throttle to the stop. The engine jumps in and suddenly the whole show is speeding toward a tree that is not anywhere near where I want to go. I save things by chopping the throttle, legs flailing akimbo, then get back on the gas hard with one eye on the clock; if I hit this corner right I might – might – still pull this off! I jam the rear brake and rather than having the back slide out, the bike just drags in a straight line toward a stack of hay bales. I let off the brake and with Herculean effort manage to force the 225kg machine through the corner. I can’t see my time but I know it’s not good. A minute or so later, Tony – who has never before ridden off road in his life and who has crashed three goddamn times in previous runs – manages to knock me into fourth place.

There is just enough time to drink a bottle of water before I’m again on the Street Bob, speeding back to Antequera. We’re a little off schedule and Harley’s people are eager for us to return to base so we can spend some time on the LiveWire before dark. To make time we hop on the motorway. Initially it seems a bad choice, as we find ourselves filtering through 15 kilometers of crawling traffic, but soon we’re free of it and… well… free.

We set a quick but sensible pace, meaning I’m able to relax and enjoy a Harley-Davidson in its intended environment: the open road. On long sweeping curves the Street Bob’s loping big twin is untroubled as we make our way up into the mountains. The temperature drops a little as we climb and occasionally a chill will run through me that manifests in waves of happy peacefulness.

We get to the hotel about an hour later and the day ends on Harley-Davidson’s heralded electric motorcycle. The LiveWire is delightful and fascinating, and it provides me with a postcard-picture memory of the sort I know I’ll go back to often: 

I’m on a quiet, twisting road speeding down from a mountain’s peak, the heavy, quick dark of high-country dusk pressing down on us. In this fading light the mountain looks like a Japanese painting, blue-grey, daunting and jagged. Dotted here and there are craggy apple trees sprouting vibrant pink and white flowers. The road is a ribbon hugging the cliffside, twisting and turning down to the valley below. Cold mountain air follows us down, filling my lungs as I laugh and shout at the bike’s whirring madness. Everything is clear and serene; normally a pace like this would be accompanied by the sound of an engine being tortured. Not here. The LiveWire sends up a futuristic whine, but the predominant sound is that of wind rushing past my helmet.

Somehow I have made my way to the front of the pack, second only to Charlie, of course. The bike moves with such ease and power, I’m chasing him as hard as I dare on a road with no guardrails. It occurs to me that Charlie may not be giving this his all if I’m able to keep sight of him. Up ahead he’s entertaining himself by trying to get the back end to drift, his bike squirreling as he cracks the throttle out of corners.

I watch him dance around a hairpin and disappear over a ridge. Cresting the ridge myself the scene hits me in the chest with its beauty. The mountains and valley stretched out in front of me, apple blossoms, the last faint hints of sunset illuminating an infinite clear sky, a tiny river cutting through the valley. In this moment, my lungs are the only part of myself of which I am aware. They are full to bursting with clean, cool air. I am oxygen and electricity, flying across the landscape. Charlie’s taillight is fast evaporating into the horizon. I twist the throttle and give chase.

~II~

September 2019. I’m sitting in my shed, soaking wet. Listening to the bassy thrum of the Triumph Bonneville T120’s engine, I close my eyes. Its warmth brings a flash of memory: summer. The moment is too short to fully grasp but it is enough to rattle my dark thoughts. There are good things, I tell myself; good things happen. They have happened. They will happen again.

I shut off the engine, step out of the shed, feel the rain on my face and breathe out. When I open the door to my flat, my dog celebrates by jumping and spinning in circles.