Step One: Tell Yourself You Have No Business Driving a Bike
Have you done that?
Now go get yourself a bike.
Step Two: Find a Bike
You’re going to be driving from Chiang Mai to Pai. The route takes a little over three hours by car, and the locals tell you that it will take an additional two hours on a scooter. Five hours is a long time.
In college you had a scooter that topped at 30mph. You remember the way it strained to ascend a small incline. You would watch the needle slowly fall as you climbed.
30 … 25 … 22 …
As much as you tried willing the needle to go back up, there was nothing you could do. There was no way to shift gears, and the engine was small.
Your friend Tariq asks you what kind of scooter the two of you should get. You think back to your old one and imagine powerlessly willing the needle to move. For five hours.
“It must be fast. That’s our only requirement. And manual transmission. Manual is fast.”
After investigating three rental shops, you step inside a bigger outfit that features several rows of motorcycles on the sidewalk. Real monsters. A young Thai associate points you to a smaller bike in the middle of the herd. You are instantly drawn to it. It has a leaner body than the other scooters you’ve looked at. Digital display. Manual transmission.
“Will it go to Pai?”
It’s 500 baht for 24 hours. That’s $15.
“Give us two. We’ll take it.”
Step Three: Escape With Your Bike
The associate lines both bikes up. You hand over the money and pick out a helmet while Tariq signs paperwork.
You ask the associate to show you how to start the engine. When he does, you ask him how the gears work. He’s explaining how to shift into first gear. You need to press the gear shifter down with your left foot to engage first. But after that you pull up on the shifter to raise the gear. Okay.
“And you squeeze the left handbrake while you shift gears?”
That’s not the handbrake it’s the clutch.
“So where’s the break?”
It’s by your right foot.
You study the bike. A little too intently. You can feel the manager looking over.
You climb on the bike. It suddenly feels a lot bigger than it looked. You fiddle with the gear shifter until you have the bike in first gear. You let out the clutch and open the throttle. But not enough. The bike stalls.
The engine is off now. Turn it back on.
You press the ignition but nothing happens. Oh yea. It’s in first gear. How do you put it in neutral again? You pull up on the gear shifter. Second gear. Back down to first. You have to pull the shifter up halfway to get it in neutral. Got it. Engine on. Try again.
You put the bike in first and release the clutch. The bike lurches forward and comes to an abrupt halt. Stalled again. You’re feeling nervous.
The manager comes over. A middle-aged woman who acts like she’s dealt with too many tourists in her life. She gives you a stare down. “Do you know how to ride a bike?”
She tells an associate to bring the bike around back so you can practice a few more times. You’re relieved to get away from all the people. You learn best when you can process things on your own.
But around back you stall three more times. You can’t think straight. You’re rushing through the motions. The idea of taking this thing out into traffic and riding it five hours through the mountains suddenly seems impossible and it's eroding your confidence.
The associate is staring at you. You panic.
“Just give me an automatic scooter.”
You climb off the bike. Why did you give up? Remember your old scooter and the needle. You want the needle?
“Wait. Let me try one more time.”
Tariq comes over and gives you a few pointers. The way he explains it makes sense. You inhale slowly. Actually think this time.
You put the bike in first, release the clutch halfway, and open the throttle. You feel the torque transfer from the engine to the wheel. The bike moves forward slowly. Something clicks inside your head. It all makes sense now. You wonder why it took you so long. With both feet on the pegs you pull harder on the throttle and accelerate down to the end of the side road, turn around, and bring it back. Still in first gear.
The associate gives you a broad toothy smile. “You can ride!”
Yes. You can ride.
Step Four: Learn to Shift Gears
Peel out of the bike shop before someone changes their mind. You just completed Step Three.
You merge clumsily into traffic, and the car behind you honks. Ignore it. Now how do you shift into second gear? Squeeze the clutch, pull up on the gear shifter, open the throttle, release the clutch. The bike shoots forward. That felt good.
You make it to third gear and then pull into the gas station down the road. You need to fill up for the long journey ahead. You stop next to the service attendant behind Tariq and step off the bike. High fives. You laugh.
It feels like you just got away with robbing a bank.
Back on the road you get a better feel for changing gears. Pull up on the shifter to go up. Push down to go down. Traffic is dense so you never go very high. Still, it starts to dawn on you that this bike is fast. Faster than you expected. You get a great deal of pleasure from opening the throttle and flying past the car next to you. You begin to weave through traffic. At stop lights you go down the center line and skip to the front. When the light turns green you open her up and leave everyone else behind. Never to be seen again.
You’re gaining confidence. Getting cocky actually.
A local on a scooter hops the sidewalk to pass a line of eight cars. You follow his lead. Bikes don’t have to stay in the lines. When the two of you merge back on to the road you pass him too.
There does not appear to be any rules. No one is stopping you. There are no speed signs. You can’t remember what a police car even looks like.
You pull up to the hostel to drop a few things off. You’re so giddy with excitement you can’t stop laughing. You tell Tariq:
“Businesses have no business renting things like that to people like us.”
Back on the road it’s more of the same. Weaving. Accelerating. Always the front of the line.
Outside the city limits the traffic begins to dissipate. The confluence of city streets give way to a long stretch of highway. This is it. The road is wide open. Test her.
You’re getting smooth with the transitions.
You open the throttle as far as it will go. The air resistance is pushing back. You push harder.
You look down at the numbers climbing on the speedometer. You don’t remember the kph/mph ratio. You tell yourself that you're probably not going that fast.
Later in the evening when you look it up, you’ll realize you were going over 75mph (120kph). This fact will cause you to take a deep breath and examine your life. To think about all the things you love and don't want to lose.
But that will come later. For now, weave past another truck and punch it.
Step Five: Learn How to Take a Turn
After an hour on the freeway you exit left toward the mountains. Dark clouds loom ahead, and as the road begins to bend, rain starts falling with increasing frequency. The water painfully pelts the exposed part of your chest, hands, and face. You can't keep your eyes open. You pull over and Tariq hands you his glasses. Perfect. Thunder rolls in the distance and the two of you take off into the storm, each vying for the lead.
Climbing the mountain now, the rain makes you nervous. You know that it's not as safe, but you don't know where the limit is. Where is the line between what would be safe in normal conditions but not when there are streams running down the street? The uncertainty is what bothers you.
You lean into a tight curve and feel the engine groan at the incline. Willing the needle up, you quickly downshift. But you release the clutch too quickly. The sudden torque causes the tire to hydroplane and in an instant you feel the back begin to slide out from under you.
But just as suddenly as it lost it, the tire regains its grip on the road and you speed forward.
Ah. So that's where the line is.
Later, you almost lose control of the bike again on a decline, and this causes you to re-evaluate your technique. You realize you have been braking incorrectly, and your timid approach to turns has been creating unnecessary risk. Rather than squeezing the clutch completely when braking, which causes the bike to go into neutral, you learn to let the transmission maintain control. You internalize the need to work the clutch and brake simultaneously, to downshift when approaching tight turns, and to lean into them confidently.
The Inevitable Happens
You are concentrating intently on your technique. On every bend and turn you evaluate yourself. How was the approach? Could you have used a better gear combination? Did you lean at the right time? Did you accelerate out of it as fast as possible?
Tariq is ahead of you at the moment, and as you come around a bend you see him parked on the other side of the road. You pull over and get off the bike. As you walk across to meet him you notice the front fender on his bike is broken.
He tells you he could not stop in time and lost control. He slid across the street and was stopped by the guardrail from going over the edge.
"Are you okay?"
He examines his arm. It's bruised and his bicep looks like it's been separated into two halves.
"Let's take a five minute break."
Tariq gives his arm a worried look, but after shaking it out he's assured it's not broken. It still functions. You hop back on your bikes and continue.
You remind yourself to stay focused.
Step Six: Be Humbled
You make it to Pai in two hours and forty-five minutes. Five hours? No way. You're riding a high of endorphins and confidence. You drop your things off at the hostel, and after a short coffee break you are both itching for another ride.
The hostel owner recommends watching the sunset from the canyons not far from here. Your shoes are still soaked from the rain so you and Tariq leave them and decide to ride barefoot. Saddle up.
The path is a narrow country road. Pai has become a popular travel destination, and the increased number of bikes and scooters on the road annoys you. You can't tolerate anyone being in front of you. You take unnecessary risks to pass anything in your way.
Although the road is dry, it's not well maintained and the gravel is loose. As you approach a bend you realize you're coming in too fast. It's tighter than you expected. A truck is coming down the opposite side and you brake to avoid a collision. This time when you lose control you don't regain it. You wipe out and jump off the bike at the last second. Inches from the centerline.
Tariq comes up behind you and asks if you're okay.
Except for the bruise on your left pinky, you're physically okay. But your pride took a major hit. The high you were riding is shattered.
This is good.
Your confidence had out-paced your skill and experience. You were taking risks you shouldn't have been taking. You came dangerously close to wiping out on the wrong side of oncoming traffic. The fact that you came away from your mistake scratch-free is a blessing you may not have deserved, but you promise yourself you won't take it for granted.
You pick the bike up, start the engine, and accelerate away, trying to put some distance between yourself and the spot of your embarrassment. Still, you admit that embarrassment is a small price to pay for a lesson that may end up saving you from another dangerous mistake.
Step Seven: Take a Detour
You finish watching the sunset from Pai Canyon. A Spanish traveler tells you there is a waterfall off the main road. You and Tariq decide to find it on your way back.
It's dark by the time you pull off onto the dirt road, and you plunge ahead into the countryside. You have to swerve to avoid ditches and puddles, you cross streams of water on makeshift 2x4 wooden bridges, and some inclines are so impossibly steep you're reduced to first gear. This is real adventure.
Finally, you locate a small walking path on the side of the road. In the dark of night you set off on foot in the direction of running water. When you reach the waterfall the two of you dip your feet in the water. It's cool and refreshing. Tariq is going in.
Never in a million years would you have imagined yourself swimming in a murky tropical pool of water in the dead of night. But tonight is all about setting personal records. You take your shirt and pants off and dive in.
Later, as you are climbing out, you slip and cut your foot on the edge of a rock. You try to avoid getting blood on your pants as you put them on. You hike back down to the bikes, and a burning sensation on your feet causes you to turn to Tariq:
"Are your feet on fire too?"
He shines his light on your foot and you see hundreds of tiny, black ... things crawling all over you. You swat furiously at your feet and ankles.
"Let's get the hell out of here."
Back in Pai
You survived your first day on a motor bike. Go ahead and grab a beer and relax. Now is the time to reflect on the day and realize how lucky you are. To feel grateful for life, and to be scratch-free.
You tell yourself that tomorrow you’ll make it your goal to get back to Chiang Mai in one piece. You’ll take things slow and easy. You won't push the limits. You won’t take life for granted.
Of course, that won’t actually happen.
When you swing your legs over the saddle the next morning it will feel like greeting an old friend. When you hit the road the speech you gave yourself the night before will seem fuzzy and irrelevant. The things you had to concentrate intently on the day before will have become second nature. The roads will be dry, and the same twists and turns that worried you before will feel easy and exhilarating. You’ll open the throttle more, searching for the new limit, and push 65mph on winding mountain roads.
And you’ll make it back in one piece in record time: two hours and thirty minutes.
It will be the most addicting feeling you’ve ever experienced.
But you can move on now.
You’ll turn the keys in and walk away.
And that’s the most important step of all.