Phil Gulley: The Three Motorcycles Everyone Should Own

The owner of vintage bikes loves nothing more than talking about them.
About this time of year, I grow weary of winter and wish it were spring. If I were into gardening, I could look through the seed catalogs and transport myself to April, when Doc Leondis, who lives up the road, rototills his patch of land. We kept a few rows of tomatoes and peppers when we first moved to our house in Danville because it seemed like the thing to do when one lives in a small town. But we soon discovered that when most everyone else gardens, the few who don’t can depend upon Christian charity to fill the larder.

Lacking a garden, I pass the winter readying my motorcycles for the glories of spring—changing oil, lubricating chains, adjusting valves, waxing fenders, replacing spark plugs, and charging batteries. I’m a terrible mechanic, but I have prepared myself for the more difficult operations by watching YouTube clips and consulting with my neighbor Rod, who could fabricate an engine out of Tinkertoys if he had a mind to.

I first met Rod when he rode past my house on an old Triumph and I waved him down. (The owner of a vintage bike loves nothing more than to be stopped and asked about it.) I had two motorcycles at the time, which my wife thought excessive, but Rod owned a dozen, which put everything into perspective. A few weeks later, I purchased another bike, and was still able to tell my wife that Rod had nine more.

Why does a man need three bikes? I’m glad you asked.

The motorcyclist must have a small, nimble bike, ready to go at any moment for trips that are too far to walk and too short to bother with a car. My errand bike is a 1984 Honda CT110, which I ride to Rod’s house, into town, and to my granddaughter’s house to visit her. It gets 100 miles to the gallon and has a spare gas tank. Between the main tank and the spare, it holds two gallons of gas, so it can go 200 miles after a fill-up. I fill it once each spring, and am good to go for the season. Whenever I ride the Honda, someone will flag me down and gush over it, usually a man who realizes his need for such practical transportation, and offers to buy it. I thank him for his kind words, tell him it’s not for sale, then leave him brokenhearted along the road, his life in shambles.

The committed rider must also own a vintage bike, a motorcycle full of potential but currently out of commission. It gives the owner a reason for living, dreaming of the day the bike will be restored to perfection. He scours the internet looking for the correct carburetor or rear fender, paws through boxes of vintage parts at swap meets, and meets once a month in a garage with other motorcycle owners, all of whom talk about their efforts to resurrect some ageless beauty. Mine is a 1974 Triumph Bonneville that I acquired in a trade. It’s mostly in pieces, some at my house, the rest in Rod’s garage, except for the engine head, which is at a welder’s shop being machined. Once a week, I ride my 1984 Honda CT110 to Rod’s place, where we sit in his garage and talk about my 1974 Triumph Bonneville.

“That’s going to be some bike when we get it done,” I tell him.

“Bueno!” Rod says. Rod isn’t Hispanic, but he says “bueno” whenever he’s even mildly excited about something. At any given time, Rod has four or five bikes in need of renovation, and he’s the happiest man I know.

The third bike every rider must own is one that is not only dependable, but large enough to be useful, a bike that can be ridden for several hundred miles at a stretch. Mine is a 2017 Triumph Bonneville, a machine of incomparable beauty. Like most of my acquisitions, it was impulsive. I was driving past a Triumph dealership when my car steered itself into the lot. I saw the bike, fell in love, and texted my wife to remind her I didn’t smoke, cheat, take drugs, or otherwise cause her a moment’s worry, so I knew she wouldn’t mind me buying a new motorcycle. Whenever I’m trying to talk my wife into something, I point out how much worse her life could be if I weren’t so virtuous.

The day I bought the new Bonneville, I rode it straight to Rod’s garage. He was working on a 1960 Norton motorcycle when I pulled up. He saw my new bike and began to weep, tears streaming down his cheeks. “Bueno,” he said, over and over. “Bueno.”

I just remembered I have a fourth motorcycle, down at our farm, a 2009 Kawasaki KLR650 that technically belongs to our younger son, who entrusted it to my care when he joined the Army. Except now he’s no longer interested in riding motorcycles, which suits me fine, since there are too many idiots out there driving cars and texting.

When my mother was living, she hated motorcycles.

“I see you’re on that damned death machine,” she’d say, whenever I rode it to my parents’ house.

“If you prefer, I’ll take drugs instead,” I would say. I use the drug excuse every chance I get.

It’s hard to explain the joy of motorcycling to someone who doesn’t ride. If you ask us what we like about it, we’ll use words like “freedom” and “exhilarating,” but it’s more than that. It’s being outside with the sights and scents, the heat and cold. It’s the peace of it, no need to talk, no radio to fiddle with, no cell phone to hurry to answer, no adjusting the air conditioner. And there’s the camaraderie, the passing biker raising the left hand in greeting, the biker salute. No notice is taken of race, religion, politics, nationality, or any other distinction we otherwise seem hell-bent on maintaining. I would call it a brotherhood, except 14 percent of riders today are women.

As is true of any community, a few myths persist—Harley owners look down on Honda owners, owners of European bikes are pretentious, sport-bike riders are crazy—but I’ve not found any of those things to be true. One’s choice of bike is a personal preference to be respected, not a moral decision to be condemned. Of course, every rider thinks his motorcycle is the best, but would never say so. Except perhaps the owners of Triumph Bonnevilles, but only because it’s true.

When some people discover I enjoy riding motorcycles, they feel compelled to remind me that bikes are dangerous. They say this as if it were news to me. Of course motorcycling is dangerous. That’s part of the fun. If I wanted a life without risk, I would stay home, become a vegetarian, and live to be 100. I decided a long time ago that dying on a motorcycle is preferable to dying in a nursing home. Besides, it isn’t death I fear. It’s not living.