Lessons in the Slipstream: BMW R18

Ride a motorcycle! You can learn so much – about people, about machines and about life in general. Provided you know how to get the BMW R 18 started.
Text Matthias Mederer
Photo Matthias Mederer · ramp.pictures

Sigmund Freud never rode a motorcycle. At least we can assume he didn’t, otherwise he would have thought differently about the struggle between the love and death drives that we are constantly engaged in. Perhaps he would have ­simply declared the twenty-five or so motorcycle journalists and the BMW Motorrad PR and marketing people here to be crazy. They all got together the night before for a tour through England on various BMW R nineTs and BMW R 18s. The location: the Bike Shed, 384 Old Street, Shoreditch. Besides Ace Cafe, perhaps the number one hotspot for bikers in London. Everyone around me sees motorcycling as a natural form of transport and clocks so many miles a year on their bike that even some sales representatives can’t keep up in their company cars.

I’m sitting at a table with John. John is from England, in his mid-fifties, wearing biker gear that looks retro but that he probably really bought thirty years ago. We talk about the motorcycle lifestyle. I tell him I used to ride a lot, in my early twenties, a 1996 Ducati Monster. “Nice!” John grins. I don’t mention that I got tendinitis in both wrists for several weeks at a time every spring because of the clutch and gas. I don’t necessarily want to draw John’s attention to my weak, pampered body as a first impression. I think he can smell the rat anyway. “No comparison to the new bikes, it was really hard work back then!” he says politely. I just nod.

The location: the Bike Shed, 384 Old Street, Shoreditch. Besides Ace Cafe, perhaps the number one hotspot for bikers in London.

Everyone around me sees motorcycling as a natural form of transport

We also talk about the danger of motorcycle riding. John has lost a few friends over the years. He reaches for a potato fry and dips it in ketchup. “You know, motorcycling, like learning to walk, is a form of human locomotion that has all the same elements we use to discover the world as newborns. A baby straightens itself up, it pulls itself up on a table or a couch, it tips over and falls. And sure, it gets hurt at times. But that’s how the baby learns. Then come the first wobbly steps, later as a toddler it runs, jumps, does all the things that give it what will later be its body awareness. It senses that it is human, and it understands that this is the only way it can move forward. That there’s always some risk. That was essential for human evolution, and it will always be like that. Riding a motorcycle teaches us the exact same thing as adults. On every ride. I don’t ride motorcycles in spite of the risk, but because of it.” Later, I learn that John had studied philosophy for a while.

The next morning, at the Classic Car Club, the starting point for our ride. We’ll be traveling via Oxford, with two brief stopovers to visit Marshall Amplification in Bletchley and the BMW MINI plant, to Goodwood for the Revival. My bike is a BMW R 18. I’m excited, wondering if I can keep up with the group. Giddy with anticipation, I try to fire up the bike. But the R 18 just doesn’t want to start. Three times I switch the ignition off and on and press the red start button, but the machine doesn’t make a sound. So I call for Alex. Alex is from BMW, always cheerful and in a good mood, and he explains a special feature to me: the blast that the two-cylinder, four-stroke boxer engine sends through the machine and through the rider’s body when it starts up is so powerful that BMW Motorrad decided, for safety reasons, that you could only start the engine with the clutch engaged. Even with the transmission in neutral. I’m already gearing up to complain about this sheer impertinence when the engine cuts me off mid-sentence. Even with both hands on the handlebars, the R 18 jerks so hard to the left that I briefly think I’ve been jostled by a drunken lumberjack. I tell the joke about the lumberjack the next day at lunch. No one laughs.

The bikes are as wide as a horse, so we don’t weave our way between the cars but jog along with the traffic. Bikers quickly get bored with this kind of thing – which leads to them coming up with all kinds of silly ideas.

We’re off. Stop-and-go through the City of London. Temperature outside: fifteen degrees Celsius. The moment I feel like no one is watching, I switch on the heated grips. There are seven of us, the bikes are as wide as a horse, so we don’t weave our way between the cars but jog along with the traffic. Bikers quickly get bored with this kind of thing – which leads to them coming up with the kind of silly ideas that gives me my first shot of adrenaline of the day. We’re waiting in the front row at a red light. When the light turns yellow, Matt, who is next to me, grabs my handlebars and presses the kill switch. My engine cuts out. Matt rides off, and I’m left with five very experienced bikers staring at my back. I can feel their eyes on me. Riding in a group, you don’t just pass the guy in front of you. For a short time, I’m very nervous. What to do? The clutch is still pulled. First gear still engaged. The start button. Now! With an energetic jolt, the boxer comes back to life. “Just don’t stall the engine on the way out!” I think. I’ve never felt this anxious, not even before my school-leaving exams. But I pass the test. I take off and catch up with Matt, who is waiting at the next light. Sneaking up behind him, I bump his rear tire with my front wheel. The little jolt takes him by surprise. He wobbles briefly but catches himself right away before giving me a hang-loose gesture as a ­greeting. Initiation ritual complete, I suppose.

We ride out of town.

From here on, things get more serious.

→ Where the tour with BMW will take our author in the following, what footrests and aluminium rims have in common and why you always have to get up again in life? Read the full text in ramp #59. Available now!


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