Let me be the first person to call myself out by saying I never wanted anything to do with riding a motorcycle. The macho stigma often associated with two-wheeled culture paired with some aggressive riding styles is something that I admittedly just don’t vibe with. But in March I went to go look at a 1996 BMW R1100RS with my significant other, and my fascination for weird and quirky engineering quickly overrode my thoughts about those social stigmas.
I was enamored by its opposing cylinders stretching to the widest reaches of the entire bike. Its tri-spoke wheels and bright red paint were the raddest pairing to my “Brilliantrot” BMW E36 coupe that I just could not let slip away. We brought the bike home, I immediately took my riding test, and then logged over 1,000 miles in my first month of riding. From there I debated whether or not to share my journey here, or let it just be a quiet “me” thing. Until Pride month rolled around.
With this past June being my first pride month in the motorcycle world, it took me some time to realize there was a distinct lack of acknowledgement from most motorcycle media. That was until Revzilla seemingly broke the silence, but it didn’t take any digging at all to notice the majority of the the feedback they received was incredibly negative. It seems as though I’ve taken for granted the progress we’ve made in the automotive world. It all just felt a decade behind the times.
That one brave post by Revzilla made me realize the new hobby that I dove into for my own enjoyment and mental health, may actually do the opposite for me. And that may have held true if quite literally that act of being out(side) on a motorcycle wasn’t so damn satisfying as a gearhead.
The Big Red BMW
Weighing in at 580lbs, most would agree that a 1996 BMW R1100RS is not a beginner friendly motorcycle. But just like BMW’s cars, it came packed with standard technology that was well ahead of its time in the motorcycle world. While things like ABS and Bosch fuel injection were all but standard on cars by the mid ’90s, they were an outright luxury on motorcycles. So despite its weight, this 28-year-old BMW is still safer for a new rider than some new motorcycles currently being sold in 2023.
The tech-filled chassis of the R1100RS surrounds a 100-year-old engine design. In the same way Porsche has famously evolved its various 911 chassis’ over the years, BMW has been putting two-cylinder boxer engines in motorcycles since 1923. Starting out with an air-cooled 494 cc boxer-twin in the R32, the boxer-twin is as synonymous with BMW Motorrad as Madonna is to Vogue. My bike is home to a 1085 cc version that makes 90 horsepower and 69 lb-ft of torque. It’s paired to a five-speed dry-clutch transmission with a car-like driveshaft that sends power to the rear wheel. No chain to maintain plays a big part in why BMW motorcycles are notoriously reliable over hundreds of thousands of miles and long trips.
Why Two Wheels?
It’s no secret that as cars get bigger and more refined, they lose certain types of feedback that so many car enthusiasts lust after. “Purist” drivers’ cars like the Honda S2000, BMW E30, Lotus Elise and so many others have skyrocketed in value as enthusiasts realize they may never have the chance to buy a new car like that again. But on a motorcycle, you can’t help but be involved. The simple act of getting on a motorcycle to start it is a whole body experience. Whether you’re taking a corner at speed or sitting in a Starbucks drive-through, riding requires careful forethought and body positioning to ensure you aren’t unwillingly introduced to asphalt. Both of your hands and feet are wrapped around a machine that demands specific inputs from each extremity just to stay on the road.
And while safety is always my personal main goal, much like High Performance Driver Education in a car, I realized the more educated of a rider you are the safer things become. Eager to become more comfortable on the street, I set out for my first adventure in the Appalachian Mountains where I could gain comfort at my own speed.
The First Big Adventure
Typical of the Appalachians in the spring, there was a cool mist in the air as I set out on my first solo tour. No cell phone service meant I either had to use a map, or take a bunch of google maps screenshots of the various turns I needed to take. And since I couldn’t even begin to tell you where to buy a map in 2023, I opted for the less than ideal screenshots.
My journey started in North Carolina on the back-end of the famous US-129 “Tail of the Dragon.” It would end having traveled 200 miles full-circle to the more technical start of The Dragon. In between was the Cherohala Skyway, snaking 5,500 feet up to the peaks of the Great Smokey Mountains. As elevation rose, the BMW settled into a 3,500 RPM sweet spot right in the middle of its rev range. The punchy boxer engine smoothly hummed along as I leaned further into each corner to feel out the BMW’s chassis. With each new corner I gained more confidence in the big bike. Its suspension is well damped for the smooth corners on the skyway, but noticeably underdamped through bumpy curves. A more skilled rider could easily lean it over until its cylinder heads scrape the pavement, but safety and simply learning was my main priority.
The Cherohala Skyway descends into Tellico Plains where I was met with hundreds of other riders on the same journey as myself. After a quick bite to eat at Tellico Cafe it was a 30-minute ride to conquer the rest of the Tail of the Dragon. For a new motorcycle rider, or arguably any motorcycle rider the Tail is a dangerous place. Due to the sheer number of people of various skill levels who flock to US-129, there are an infinite number of things to go wrong outside of your personal control. For that reason, I was having second thoughts on whether or not to even return to our cabin taking the Tail itself. I decided to use HPDE etiquette, ride my own ride and check mirrors often for point-bys.
With photographers and on-lookers littering the side of the road, riding the Tail of the Dragon is an exercise of focus and looking where you want to go. Even moreso than in a car, the direction your head is turned is the direction you will travel. So there was no time to take in any of the surrounding shenanigans. However the energy and enthusiasm in the air was energizing and focusing. Everybody was there to enjoy their riding or driving machines and that was a common bond we all had regardless of skill level. After 318 turns, 11 miles, and quite a few point-bys I had “Slayed the Dragon” as a new rider.
Progress is Important
The peace,thrills, and joy that I felt along my first big motorcycle adventure is something that I believe everybody should experience if they feel compelled. But just like so many other aspects of life for us in the LGBTQ community, the social aspect of the motorcycle world beyond just solo rides can be unwelcoming at times. It’s been unwelcoming to the point that I found myself second guessing whether or not to go to local motorcycle gatherings.
But just like we’ve proven with cars, there is strength in numbers and acceptance comes with visibility. With even more two-wheeled test rides to come, I’m hopeful that visibility can start here.