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Why Cruise?

Discussion in 'General Motorcycling Discussion' at netrider.net.au started by mattb, Nov 22, 2008.

  1. Am meant to be marking exams today, but felt in a slightly more creative mood and wrote this short draft of an essay instead, articulating some of the things I've been thinking about recently regarding the riding style which feels natural to me and which I've been cultivating both in practice and philosophically.

    Why Cruise?

    This short essay is entitled ‘Why Cruise?’ I want to articulate some aspects of the attraction to cruising on a motorcycle, as distinct from other riding styles, for instance sports riding. My point is not to argue that one should reject other riding styles in favour of cruising; rather I want to show what I find attractive about cruising and why I consider it something to be cultivated and valued by those whom it attracts. I divide my discussion into three themes: the aesthetics of slowing down; safety; and the bike.

    The aesthetics of slowing down

    I want to write first about two key ideas as one way to articulate the experience of cruising: ‘aesthetics’, and ‘time’ ‘Aesthetics’ has to do with experiences of the senses in terms of quality, for example the qualities we refer to in art, such as ‘beauty’. Of course all riding styles have their aesthetic dimension as part of what makes them attractive, but I think cruising both allows and aims for aesthetic experience in an important and distinct way, one analogous to artistic experience. Sports riding pursues and offers certain types of aesthetic experience also, connected with the adrenaline experience of speed and skilled gracefulness. In contrast cruising, because of the kind of time it inhabits – slow time (and here we connect with that other concept, ‘time’) – offers a contemplative kind of aesthetic experience.

    Contemplative experience is experience that involves contemplating. To contemplate means to look beyond the self, to see what is out there waiting to be perceived. Unlike the aesthetic experience of being engaged in the accomplishment of an activity which sports offers, contemplative aesthetic experience is more akin to artistic perception, for instance that of the painter, or that of the writer, or more broadly the historian or the philosopher. Its truest aim involves such things as depth in seeing and experiencing, rather than accomplishment.

    When one’s aim is to ride fast through a winding country road, one’s attention is focused on accomplishing the best kind of flight through the corners. Like the experience of flight, one revels in the experience of the forces of physics as one masters the negotiation of those forces. Two things mostly absorb this rider’s attention: the twisting road as an on-coming technical challenge, and the experience of one’s body and machine in accomplished motion. This is not simply a technical experience: it has its own beauty. Speed is beautiful in its own way. But it is not contemplative beauty in the sense that it is not the beauty of objects outside one’s self. When one cruises as a contemplative form of riding, taking time, time which by comparison is slow, one’s attention is on the contrary given to a much broader field of vision and general sensory experience. Because one is going slow, cornering is less of an absorbing matter, and one therefore has space to give their attention to things of beauty beyond speed and cornering. They notice other things as part of their riding experience: the shadows cast by cloud across half a barren hill, the rise of a mountain as they approach it, the rusted side of an old shed or the weather-board houses at the edge of a town and the somehow intimate sense of history, of people, time and place, which this evokes in the imagination.

    This contemplative side to riding, which requires ‘going slow’, or just ‘cruising’, can become an essential aspect of the riding experience for a person, such that fast riding becomes less meaningful, an obstruction to what is central in motorcycling. Of course it is something which needs cultivating, just as the artist must cultivate their artistic sensibility, and the philosopher their attention to the shapes and forms of life. But like any of the disciplines mentioned this practice feeds itself: as we begin to see more, we are, by the attraction of what we see, drawn to look further. This is how contemplation works, it is a kind of attention which is self-cultivating. This means that riding can take on a natural depth, that it draws us and connects us with deeper things that just movement. Cruising in this case is not a posing, or a ‘soft option’, but rather opens the ride to dimensions that are in some ways philosophical or spiritual, that is, it becomes a form of deeper engagement with the world that one explores through it.

    Safety: speed kills, cruisin' chills!

    There is another side to cultivating cruising. It is for me less interesting, its reason being more simply pragmatic, but it is important anyway and adds force or value to this style of riding. This other matter is safety. Assuming that you maintain your awareness as much as you do with any style of riding, just cruising not only opens space for contemplation of what is around you, it opens a safety-space or margin between you and what is around you. I am assuming that the rider who cruises is still attentive to the movements and dangers about her. Of two riders with the same skill level, coming around a blind corner upon an obstacle, the one who is moving slower is – other things being equal – more safe. They have more time to react, and less speed to wipe off.

    In traffic, which due to its greater risk factor is usually not the place for the riding experience I have been writing about, the rider who has cultivated a cruising attitude still has an advantage in that, if they extend the attitude informing their cruising to this environment, they are more relaxed or chilled, and so less likely to perform an impatient and imprudent manoeuvre which can put them in harm’s way. They will also become less agitated by virtue of the difference of their ‘cruisey’ thinking, and so will either be free to enjoy themselves more, or at least will be less frustrated by the experience of moving through that (often congested) traffic.

    The Bike

    There is another aspect to cruising which is worth discussing: the bike. Cruising can be done on any bike, and is not limited to that style of motorcycle marketed as a ‘cruiser’. But, in the way that a pure sports bike does not incline one to cruise, some bikes have virtues more befitting a cruising style of riding. A touring bike, a dual-purpose bike, a vintage bike, and a cruiser are generally better for this style of riding. I want to focus however on the bike usually designed specifically for this approach, and this is of course the cruiser.

    Not all cruisers are really for cruising. Sometimes manufacturers of this style of bike try to market their product to more sporting or power-driven tastes, so that a bike which looks like a cruiser is in fact more like a drag bike. What defines a cruiser motorcycle to me, in terms of the virtues that suit it to cruising, are several.

    I will begin with what is generally considered the most superficial: the look of a cruiser and the gear of the rider. Some criticise this as superficial because it attracts superficial interest by those who buy a bike mostly – it seems – to pose, to purchase some ‘toughness’ or ‘instant cool’. Of course if one is consistent they would have to extend that criticism to sports bikes and so forth, where people buy a bike for the way it makes them look and feel in front of others, or in their more juvenile fantasies. Something that we hyper-critical moderns are a little dense about, is the realisation that just because some people corrupt an activity, it does not follow that the activity is therefore intrinsically corrupt. Oscar Wilde once wrote, “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.†The ‘superficial’ appearance of a cruiser, and I am including the look of the rider too, can go deeper than we often assume.

    The cruiser is visually an older style of motorcycle. It has a history of connotations, different ones which speak to different people. The look of the bike makes you feel a certain way when you are on it or even near it: it often conjures up images or connotations of the sorts of aesthetic experiences I have written about. For others it symbolises certain things which cannot be perfectly attained in reality, for instance a sense of freedom from, or playful flouting of, even those social constraints which one otherwise consciously internalises and assents to. There is a real difference between immature posing, and other kinds of deeper playing with fantasy, to the varying and often vague degrees, which an image such as the cruiser look can allow. This play might involve an image of the self, a play of alter-ego, or it might be an imaginative play with time and place. I personally am attracted to the vintage rather than the 'free bad-boy' connotation of the cruiser image. Cruising, while I have partly defined it as seeing what is out there, beyond the self, is such in a way that engages the imagination. This is not a contradiction: aesthetic experience is the sort that engages the imagination; the imagination informs, shapes, the experience of what is ‘out there’. For me the bike and the clothing speaks of other, older, times and places, it engages my fascination for place and people in terms of history, of personal stories and lives now become memory. The hints of times past is part of my aesthetic experience, engaging the imagination but also informed by the type of machine I ride through this experience, by the way it looks and feels.

    The way(s) in which a cruiser feels to ride also aid this experience. The relaxed riding position invites one to slow down, sit back and take in the world about them. Of course the position is also an aesthetic element of the experience – it makes one feel a certain way. The heart of the cruiser, the engine is especially important. Generally of lesser cylinders, a v-twin is the most common, but in-line twins are also popular and sometimes singles. The thing such engines have in common is that the vibrations and sound of the engine are more distinct; you can hear every combustion, you feel the distinct pulses of the engine. Commonly the motor is designed to be low revving, and its pulses can come to feel like an old steam train. The chugging rhythm is almost hypnotic and seems like slow-motion after a while. It is relaxed, and somewhat ‘old time’, slow time, even, patient and purposeful.

    Such an engine has excellent braking abilities which contributes to the above dimension of the experience. You do not brake for the corners, and accelerate hard out of them, in a ‘Stop! – Go!’ motion like many sports riders. Rather, with no care for outright speed but focussed instead on the experience of the journey in between, you are free to leave the brake alone, and roll the throttle on and off with an expansive rhythm, an easy motion of slight tension then release, of acceleration and deceleration becoming a broader pulse and rhythm. The cruiser engine is a special thing!


    There is a lot more that can be said, or said differently, about cruising. I have chosen three aspects which strike me. My primary audience in writing this is myself – one part of valuing and cultivating a practice is to articulate it. I hope this strikes a chord also with others, and encourages some to consider and perhaps cultivate the possibilities of this distinct and rich approach to motorcycling.

  2. Beaut read, Matt :)
  3. ...because you need a shortish Scientological actor with great (new) teeth?
  4. Interesting.

    One contrast that strikes me are your comments on contemplating on the landscape. Maybe I am focussed too much on my riding but occasionally I suddenly realise I have ridden through really nice country and not seen that much of it.

    But also I think that I am more internally focussed when I ride. I guess that even riding in a group, riding is something I do alone, so I have time inside my own head, more so than any other activity I indulge in.

    Always good to get someone else's perspective to make you reconsider your own.

    Nice read, Matt.
  5. This reminds me of the idea that someone doesn't make their own identity but it is given to them by others. I ride a bike and I become a "biker". Thats how I am seen by others so thats how I see myself. But even as I say this I am listening to Bob Dylan and he plays folk music but he will tell you he isn't a folk singer, and never cared to explain. My point being I can see truth in this idea, but I have not given it a great deal of thought to say how much truth lies within it. I do feel the connections of ideas and emotions when I am on my bike or even think about it, maybe this is because of how people see me, maybe there is another reason.

    Something I have not yet experienced but am certainly looking forward to! Many a cord struck. Lovely read.
  6. ....perfect world...so relaxing...I wish I could do that....instead of looking for bloody idiots trying to cross my way...still can't afford that...
  7. Great read Matt,

    thanks mate. I think with some refinement you should and could submit that as an essay to a biking mag and maybe even to a more mainstream audience.

    I really ejoyed your views on what crusing represents to you and in turn reflects about you.

    What you have said is almost yogic in many ways. In yoga philosophy they say that each person has a predetermined number of breaths, how they chose to use them is up to them. You can slow down your breathing, slow down your life and take time to become more intune with yourself and as a result all around you. Only through stillness and practiced ease (slowness) can you attain some sort of enlightenment. For only when you are slow can you hear and feel what you have to say and what the universe has to say to you.

    I don't want to sound like a hippie or new agey or anything but I guess I'm just trying to say I get what you mean. Cruising for you is your time to connect and slow down.

    Thanks for a great read and a well thought out and considered post.

  8. Great post Matt,

    That's another reason why you should own more than 1 bike. One for all occasions.
  9. matt good read and points well made, I too am a cruiser in the bike sense and what you have described is a lot like the zen of surfing. Some surfers want to rip rails and do 360's whereas some of us just want to slide a mal on a perfect curl.

    I gave this article to my missus and she finally gets it, she has seen motorbiking as an adrenal/testosterone activity and she could not see how that sat with my more chilled view on life, so cheers mate.
  10. I'm going to be pragmatic here.

    A bike, is a bike, is a bike. If it's got two wheels, an engine, throttle and brakes, it's a motorbike. How you ride it depends on the rider. What you ride is irrelevant. I've seen guys on sportsbike cruising around, and I've seen guys on "cruisers" pushing them through twisties for all they're worth, and everything in between.

    It is NOT the motorcycle that defines the activity, but rather the mental attitude of the rider. Of course various types of motorcycles are more suited to one task or the other, but the reality is that the choice of motorcycle does not preclude choices of riding style.

    I read through your opening post and while I ride a sports bike, I can wholly relate to everything you've written about "slow time", because there are times that I do choose to just cruise along looking at the scenery, taking it all in, and contemplating one's place in the universe. That I'm on a sports-bike is irrelevant.

    I personally find that for as much as the OP discusses the benefits of one style or the other, all that it's really doing is seeking to box and compartmentalise riding into being defined wholly by the machine that the rider is sitting astride of.

    In short, I find myself unable to agree with much of what was written, other than to say that to I find the concept of needing to purchase one type of machine in order to fully appreciate the ideals espoused in the OP to be as shallow as judging upon appearances alone.

    People are people. Bikes are bikes. What we do with them, how we ride them, and how we enjoy them is as varied and complex as the breadth of the human condition.
  11. Great post.

    I'm amazed at how many people write off cruisers because they can't corner/accelerate well, when that's not their point.

    The torque under your wrist while you just sit back and suck in the open road is amazing. A completely different kind of thrill to the spur, although not entirely.
  12. I think Matt isn't suggesting you cannot cruise on a sports bike but rather if you want to buy a bike for cruising purposes your first option would not be a sports bike. Those with sports bike can cruise all they want.

    I tend to think that the bike will govern how you ride to a degree. I chose my bike according to what kind of riding I wanted to do.