There are two kinds of motorcyclists: those of us who have always known we wanted to ride, and those who found our passion later. I’m the second kind.
Before my first hit of two-wheeled adrenaline, I saw motorcycles as an unnecessary risk. I never thought I would ride motorcycles, never thought I’d want to.
But when I took that first beginner class five years ago, I felt something in me light up — a kind of exuberant freedom I’d never felt before. On that day, I knew I needed to learn to ride.
My sudden change of heart took me by surprise. As I learned to ride and fell more in love with motorcycles, I grew curious.
I couldn’t help but ask: What is it about motorcycles? Why do we ride?
The One Answer
The tricky (and almost infuriating) part about asking riders why they ride is that their answers share similar themes, but are each unique and heartfelt.
It seemed to me that, because of these overlapping themes, there might be one answer, the answer, a comprehensive, basic, human need that would explain why so many motorcyclists love what they do.
And I was determined to be the person who figured it out.
In retrospect, it was a bit of an audacious thought. But really, I was just captivated by the question. Why, in fact, do we ride?
So I asked the question, again and again. I asked any fellow rider who would answer. I asked articles, I asked books. I asked the realm of personal experience, I asked whatever research I could find. And I asked myself.
Every time I got close to an answer, though, it felt like something was eluding me — an epiphany waiting just beyond my grasp.
Even more confounding, I realized my own reasons for riding were continually shifting.
In just five short years, motorcycles have helped me overcome fear, gain self-confidence, and learn to appreciate the strength of my body. I’ve made lifelong friends, felt the spirit of adventure, and soothed my anxiety.
In everything that motorcycles have meant to me, how could I find just one answer?
Finding fulfillment through flow
One of my favorite researchers and writers in my quest to answer this all-consuming question has been Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “cheek-sent-me-high”), a psychologist famous for studying the mental state he named “flow.”
“Flow” has a many-faceted definition, but you know it when you see it. Flow is a violinist pouring their heart into performing a complex piece. Flow is a welder balancing heat and movement to create the perfect bead.
Flow is peak athletic performance, a craftsman engaged in their trade, a motorcyclist effortlessly carving corners on a canyon road.
When you are absorbed by a task, effortlessly rising to meet its challenges, seamlessly reacting to changes, that’s flow.
Flow has been an incredibly popular topic, especially for creative work. But for all that has been written about flow, most people overlook the reason Csikszentmihalyi studied flow in the first place.
To Csikszentmihalyi, flow isn’t just an enjoyable state of being. Flow is about learning to direct your attention, gain independence from exterior rewards, and ultimately, live a happy and fulfilled life.
In his 1990 book, Csikzentmihalyi writes:
People who learn to control inner experience will be able to determine the quality of their lives, which is as close as any of us can come to being happy.”
According to Csikszentmihalyi, when we learn to find flow, we liberate ourselves from societal pressures, we find more enjoyment in our daily lives, and we gain better control over our minds.
In other words, flow helps us find ourselves.
Motorcycles as a flow activity
According to Csikszentmihalyi, flow activities have specific qualities, and it’s no surprise that these qualities are inherent to riding motorcycles.
Flow activities require attention and focus. They are challenging, and they require specific skills. The best flow activities have infinitely increasing challenges — there is always room to learn more and grow.
But one of the most important elements of flow is intrinsic motivation. Flow activities are done “not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward,” says Csikszentmihalyi.
Because motorcycles have all these qualities — requiring our attention, providing room to improve our skills, and being intrinsically rewarding — they help us find flow. And for so many of us, the flow experience of riding motorcycles helps us find the fulfillment, meaning, and transformation we need.
As Krystal Hess said to me few weeks ago: “Motorcycles are an amazing tool for all sorts of things.”
The reason we give such similar answers to “why do you ride?” is because we’re all working with the same tool. But our answers are different because we each use that tool in our own way.
The answer, then, to “why we ride” isn’t a motivation at all, but the structure of the activity itself.
Motorcycles are physical vehicles, yes. But they are also metaphysical vehicles, helping us navigate the path from who we are now to who we want to be.
So, why do you ride?
Now I understand why I’ve been so obsessed with this deceptively simple question.
When you ask another rider “Why do you ride?” you’re not asking about motorcycles. You’re asking about that person — who they are, what matters to them. What they find meaningful, and who they hope to be.
There may not be one answer to “Why do we ride?” but that hasn’t diminished the question for me — far from it.
The richness of the reasons we ride is limitless, because we are limitless. I find every answer fascinating, and I look forward to a lifetime of asking it, again and again.
“flow” is a great way to explain it. Riding certainly does require attention and focus, you are in the moment. I remember ever moment riding all the turns of the road. That is why I like to commute to work, I feel alert and energized fore the day, better than any drug.
I love how you looked at things in more detail.
Thanks so much, Tracy! The “flow” idea has been really important to me ever since I first read the book, and what’s really cool about it is how open-ended it is, even just in the scope of motorcycling. Whether you’re riding, working on bikes, or having a really good conversation with fellow riders about bikes, you’re still tapping into that attention + intrinsic reward structure, which makes these experiences so much more meaningful.
Always good to hear from you, Tracy. Hope you’re doing well! 🙂
John Buckendahl says
Well done Loryn!
My answer to the question of why I ride would be a reality break, of sorts. The mental gymnastics required to ride safely and proficiently coupled with the sensory inputs of exposure to the elements prohibits the day to day stresses of life from gaining too much of a foothold in my psyche. For me riding is excellent self care!
Good to hear from you, John, and so glad you liked the article! I agree, riding is amazing self-care. I didn’t get to touch on it much, but those external inputs are such an important part of the flow experience — they help create the challenge of the activity and the situations to respond to, but also they give us an opportunity to transcend the self and, for a moment, quiet our internal dialogue where many of those daily stresses fester.
I’m always surprised by how much depth there is to this topic 🙂 Thanks for being willing to engage in some moto-philosophy with me!
Lee Davies says
First of all, I love your ‘thoughts’ – thank you for sharing and attempting (very well) to answer the meaning of [motorcycle] life.
One thing I feel compelled to point out is that, through my own research on the psychology of motorcycling, we western/ developed world riders forget that we mainly ride through choice; for pleasure and fulfilment; as a hobby. Many others ride because they have no choice. To them, motorcycles are simply a mode of transport, a lifeline to medicine and even to food and water. Such folk, if asked why they ride, may simply reply ‘to survive’.
Personally, I don’t think there is one answer although we may get close to one per taxonomy of genres and/ or demographics.
I wish I had the education to pursue the answers but I don’t so will keep asking the questions 🙂
Warmest regards from Wales, UK.
Lee (owner of Tourataff.com)
Thank you, Lee!! You are quite right, because we westerners have so much more infrastructure, we tend to rely on cars and public transit, and those of us who do ride tend to need to validate it for ourselves to some extent. Whereas in other countries, motorcycles/scooters are simply the cheapest/easiest/most accessible or even only way they have to get around. This definitely hit home on my recent trip to Shanghai. Although a very westernized city, scooter culture was so very different there!
Thanks for visiting and for sharing your thoughts. Keep riding and questioning! 🙂