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Uncommon Sense

Should I ride during a pandemic? The answer is remarkably simple

Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road depicts a world in chaos. Food doesn’t grow, water can’t be trusted, the four seasons are gone and the weather is jammed on dank grey days where the temperature hovers at the point where rain becomes snow. It’s a midwestern March day. In perpetuity.


McCarthy never mentions the catastrophe that precipitated the crisis. Was it nuclear war? Global warming? Or this: a virus hopscotches across the world and kills the compromised—the old, the weak, the dim-witted too ignorant to heed warnings. Today, we live in a dystopian novel.


A hospital visit is out of the question if you bin it during a pandemic. What to do instead? Pack sufficient tools to refashion a fork tube as a leg splint and double-up a radiator overflow reservoir as an intravenous bag. Alternately, stay home.

On top of misery (nearing 140,000 deaths), the pandemic of 2020 has brought an unexpected questioning—if only temporarily—of societal value. Twenty-million-dollar per-season baseball and basketball players are useless. Their wealth tasteless. The Porsche SUV or the Rolex can’t confer status when its owner doesn’t leave the house. This summer, when we slide back into our old routines and old habits, we’ll be just as infatuated by our old distractions. But this spring, what matters is what matters.

Healthcare workers are soldiers dug into trenches. We rally behind them. Toot our horns outside hospitals. Sew them masks. Lend them our camper trailers to live in so they don’t risk infecting their families. The most coveted commodity on the black market today? The N95 mask.


We depend on healthcare workers. As motorcyclists, the relationship intensifies. Maybe, so far, you’ve been lucky. You haven’t snapped a clavicle or broken a leg. But what we do is risky. This isn’t hearsay. It’s backed by the numbers. As my mother never let me forget, motorcycling is dangerous. Every time I go into a hospital, for an MRI or x-ray, or, not long ago, to get stitches for a finger I slashed open on a razor-sharp shard of aluminum, I take it all in. The doctor’s skill. The nurse’s no-nonsense capability. All here for me and my motorcycling.


Depending on where you live, COVID-19 restrictions vary. In Italy and Spain, movement outside the home must be justified. You can get groceries and wine and go to the pharmacy but that’s it. Where I live, north of Toronto, many of the homes are weekend retreats. Prior to the Easter weekend, regional government implored seasonal dwellers to stay away. On Sunday I walked down my road. Two-thirds of the weekend-only homes were occupied. Many driveways had two or three or more cars. It was, to use the parlance of the times, a social distancing fail.  

That well-heeled weekenders chose to ignore travel bans this past weekend was disheartening. Many motorcyclists, too, are gearing up for the season as if, by way of a miracle, we’re exempt from the chaos around us.   


For a motorcycling publication to suggest that riding is unacceptable is untenable to its advertisers. Cycle World, in an online piece suggesting videos to pass the time, skirts the issue. “Some are choosing to social distance themselves by going for rides,” they write, “but many feel staying at home is the best move for everyone.” The Motorcycle Cruiser website advises readers to “avoid the elderly.” Asphalt & Rubber notes a KTM rear brake recall.   


At first, it seems like Rider magazine editor Mark Tuttle, in an online column, faces the question directly. Tuttle (who, like his magazine, is sensible, thoughtful, and measured) addresses the ride-or-not-ride conundrum. Tuttle writes, “…riding a motorcycle can be the very definition of social distancing and the soul-cleansing joy of a ride is needed by all of us now more than ever,” though he suggested “extra caution to avoid placing an additional burden on the healthcare system.” Tuttle’s answer is the one I’d like to believe.  


Been tempted to learn how to set your Ducati's desmodromic valves yourself? Now's the time to learn. If it's your first attempt, you'll be ready to ride just in time for the next pandemic. 

That we need our souls cleansed by a ride—in the midst of a global crisis—is disappointingly self-serving. As is the notion that we should take “extra caution.” Motorcyclists tend to believe ill-fortune awaits them on that once-in-a-lifetime trip across a far-off desert. It’s not true. The most dangerous intersection in the world is where your driveway meets your street. Because that’s where you ride the most.   


“In areas where it’s still permissible to visit public parks and go walking, running, and bicycling,” Tuttle continues, “it seems to me that motorcycle riding adheres to the spirit if not the letter of a stay-at-home order and provides an equally and adequately social-distancing venue for recreation.” But recreation is not the goal. Exercise is the goal, and motorcycling, as typically practiced, is not exercise. Tuttle’s caveat of adhering “to the spirit if not the letter” of a stay-at-home order is his uncertainty in his own words.

Think of the hospital you’ll be stepping into if you lowside your V-Strom on a gravelly spring bend. You won’t be greeted by tolerance (the most a motorcyclist can ever hope for.) You’ll be loathed. You’ll need a bed, and a doctor and, perhaps, surgery. And you’ll be on your own. No visitors. And what if your injuries are serious? Are you ready, just like the COVID-19 patients who’ve died, to end your life in isolation from your wife, your husband, your parents, your children? Irrespective of the severity of your injuries, how will you justify to healthcare workers that you’re in hospital because you craved the “soul-cleansing joy” of a ride?


For the first time in 35 years I greet the spring living in the country. My Ducati has new belts, fettled valves, fresh tires and a charged battery. I’ve been dreaming of this spring for two decades. Now it’s here. And I’m not going anywhere.  

Politicians are slippery. Religious leaders are worse. Who are we to trust amid the insanity that is COVID-19? Sam Jackson, of course. 

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