Review: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Motorcycles, Fourth Edition

As long time readers of this journal might recall, I am a motorcycle enthusiast. Back in the eighties I used to write about them, mostly vintage collectibles, and lately I've resumed riding after a very lengthy lapse. So naturally I welcomed the chance to review a new book on the subject, "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Motorcycles".

Generally I don't cotton to books with the words idiot or dummy in the title. Don't insult my intelligence if you want me to read the damned thing let alone praise it. But in this case the cover kind of disarmed me. It features a plug by Jay Leno who says and I quote, "as both an idiot and a motorcyclist I found this book very helpful." Leno is a highly respected collector with an encyclopedic knowledge of the two-wheeled art, and he doesn't often lend his name to promotions. There might just be something there, I figured.

So I started reading.

The book, which was sponsored by Motorcyclist Magazine, is frankly aimed at beginners and includes a buyer's guide as well as a lot of generally well considered tips on riding, maintenance, and safety. And, unlike many books of this sort, it provides a considerable amount of depth. I learned from it, and I'm pretty knowledgeable. There is quite a lot on engine design, for instance, and this information is extremely useful in making purchasing decisions, though it isn't at all essential for riding.

The authors are to be particularly credited for emphasizing what might be termed the negative aspects of motorcycling, and by this I mean the very real hazards posed by heedless automobile drivers who are the cause of the vast majority of accidents. Riding alone on an empty country road is an exhilarating experience and undoubtedly lies behind the involvement of many of us in motorcycling, but the perils of riding in city traffic should not be underestimated by any rider, new or experienced. My attitude when engaged in motorcycle commuting is one of utter paranoia. Everyone hates bikers and is out to do them harm. No one will respect your right of way. No one will exercise the least bit of caution when sharing the road with you. It all makes for a vastly reduced comfort level in the saddle but for a greatly increased life expectancy. I have never had an accident or collision, never even dropped a bike, never so much as scratched the paint. I attribute this not to good fortune, and certainly not to riding skills, but entirely to the fact that I am hyper-vigilant and always anticipating thoughtless or aggressive actions on the part of motorists. "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Motorcycling" fosters such paranoia. And that's a good thing.

The book is also rich with motorcycle lore and has many digressions on the role that these vehicles have played in popular culture. And this is scarcely irrelevant information simply because many present day designs are thoroughly retrograde at least when it comes to cosmetics and styling. Harley Davidson dramatic revival from the early eighties up to the present has been largely due to nostalgia for the chrome plated monsters of the nineteen fifties, and a collective amnesia about just unreliable and dangerous those monsters really were. But you can't argue with collective and selective memory and you surely can't argue with success. At the local Harley shop in my neighborhood the sales staff members look like characters out of "Happy Days". Everyone has a greasy pompadour and cuffed jeans and narrow belts. I don't know if the manufacturer insists upon this, but the message is clear. The outlaw spirit is alive and well. The customers for these hogs are mostly middle aged men who were children or young adolescents when the outlaw biker thing was abuilding. Make of it what you will.

If you want to ride and you never have, buy this book. Also go to a motorcycle school before you go on the street. People who try to learn on their own frequently have accidents. I managed to ride a bike with no training and a couple of minutes of verbal instruction but I wouldn't recommend it. And wear a helmet and body armor. Your chances of surviving an accident are about fifty percent greater if you wear a good full face helmet and armor can save you from broken bones including a broken back.

I would have appreciated perhaps some mention of the excellent fuel economy that is the characteristic of most motorcycles and whether this will prompt an expansion of the riding public. A discussion of the possibility of further improvements in mileage would also be a topic of some relevance. Motorcycles, unlike automobiles, have not in the main been subject to significant fuel efficiency improvements over the course of the last few decades. Most do use fuel injection which generally buys you a few percent increase in fuel efficiency, but beyond that you're not seeing things like direct injection or variable valve timing, and there are hardly any diesel bikes being made. In fact one can argue that mileage is actually on the decrease since displacement, horsepower, and weight have been inching upward over the years. Thirty years ago 70 horsepower was about the maximum available in a production street bike. Now you've got sports bikes exceeding 200 horsepower. My son's Yamaha FZ6, the company's lowest priced sports bike, boasts 90 horsepower, and outperforms any stock machine made in the seventies, and its mileage suffers on that account.

But these are minor quibbles. Buy the book and you'll have the basics nailed.