My motorcycle journey started in May 2019, when Revel, an app-based “urban mobility” start-up, dumped a few hundred electronic mopeds into the gentrified regions of the outer boroughs. At the time, I was living in Queens, a half-mile outside the rental radius. Despite some vague sense that the scooters were bad — that they might represent creeping privatization in the lead-up to an infrastructure crisis (or something) — I soon found myself taking furtive strolls down into the app’s coverage zone. The Revels were humiliating to ride — with the sexless body style of a Chase A.T.M. — and yet I was hooked on the frictionlessness of traversing a gridlocked city on two wheels. One day, on my walk down into the zone, I came across a guy in a garage with a whole herd of vintage mopeds for sale. Closing the Revel app for the last time, I withdrew $500 from an A.T.M. and rode off that day on a 1980 Motobecane Mobylette.
My Mobylette had a rakish red frame and an extra-long black-leather seat with space for a girl with a scarf around her neck. Like the Revel, it eased the stress of getting from Point A to Point B in a city. Unlike the Revel, it broke down constantly, teaching me new vocabulary words like “idle jet,” “petcock” and “lean oil mixture.” (As one bumper sticker goes in the vintage-scooter world: “MY OTHER RIDE IS 10 BROKEN MOPEDS.”) I wanted transportation, not a hobby, and so I sold the Mobylette and went in search of something more reliable. A bicycle was too slow; an e-bike was too novel; an electric longboard was too embarrassing. This was how a motorcycle started to feel like a practical choice.
My Yamaha TW200 arrived in May 2021, after two months at sea in the pandemic supply chain. Taking my bike out onto the streets, I quickly discovered that it was somewhat strange to view motorcycling as merely pragmatic. Other motorcyclists threw up peace signs as they passed, suggesting to me that we had something in common. Anywhere I wore my Kevlar jacket, friends harassed me with epithets like “bad boy,” and asked if they could “see my hog.” “The jacket and the helmet are for safety,” I protested. “The TW200 is a farm bike! They use it for herding animals!”
There was no livestock to herd in New York City, and the more I objected, the more it gave the impression that I was in the throes of some latent crisis of masculinity. Still, I believed the motorcycle was its own thing. Ten layers deep in sardonic detachment, I felt humiliated that a stranger might believe I’d bought into the empty affectations of the biker. When strangers started flirting with me — saying “nice bike,” and asking “for a ride” — I felt humiliated for them. How un-self-aware must you be to stir at the sight of a motorcycle helmet?
Lucky for me, these questions were made irrelevant when my bike was stolen after just two months of riding. The next morning, one building down with the super, I watched on a CCTV screen as two guys in hoodies with an angle grinder shucked my disc lock like a pistachio. The days after that were all labyrinthine bureaucracy and no open road. I called the insurance agent, who told me to call the cops, who told me to come down to the station, where they told me to go home and call 911. I went to notarize the claim form at the bank, where they told me to go to the pharmacy, whose notary only accepted cash, sending me right back to the bank. Over that weekend, someone from the @stolenmotorcyclesnyc Instagram account saw my bike parked on the street in Brooklyn. I texted the street address to my cop, who responded 10 days later to ask if I’d retrieved it.
Things went on like this for a few weeks. I kept a piece of yellow cardstock near my computer to record each step in the claim payout process. At 45 steps, I added a second sheet. Each new brush with bureaucracy made my motorcycle feel less like a machine and more like the nexus of paperwork streams. By the time I left for Sturgis, I was 55 steps in, waiting for the D.M.V. to mail a duplicate of a title I never received to begin with, for a vehicle I no longer owned. The whole biker lifestyle, which at first I’d written off, now seemed intriguing — and perhaps even fun.
On the first official day of Sturgis, I woke up to a Daily Beast headline: “Sturgis Rally Death Cult Pits Nurses Against Panicked Docs.” I scrolled through tweets from people on the coasts, predicting 10 days of public health indifference, followed by widespread hospitalizations and an influx of Harleys for sale, barely rode. Many seized upon the number “700,000,” a prediction (from where?) of how many bikers were coming to Sturgis to gather en masse. This bothered me for two reasons: First, it stank of smug schadenfreude. Second, these people did not seem to understand the very basic facts of what Sturgis actually is.