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The 60-year-old virgin

I’m a noob. Not to motorcycling. Not to writing. But the world of BMW is new to me. I recently bought my first bike with a blue-and-white roundel, a pristine 2013 F 800 GT with less than 8,000 miles on the clock, barely a thousand per year. So much for the stereotype of Beemer owners as long-distance fanatics. I’ll no doubt be disabused of other preconceived ideas as I become more familiar with you. But first, I should familiarize you with me.

Some of you may already recognize my byline. I was a monthly columnist at Motorcycle Consumer News for nearly three decades, and contributed hundreds of product evaluations and comparisons, how-to articles on mechanical procedures and riding technique, in-depth tech features, and assorted other stories before MCN went the way of so many print publications – belly-up – in early 2020. Though most of my pieces were written as an ordinary enthusiast, my column was distinct in moto-journalism because I wrote it as a clinical psychologist. You know the old joke about never seeing a motorcycle in a psychotherapist’s parking lot? Well, in my case, there is one (or more). So much for those stereotypes, too.

Anyone curious about me can orient by perusing my book, Why We Ride (2017, Fox Chapel). It’s a selection of my MCN columns, named after a research project (included in the book) I conducted long before the same title appeared on a feature film. At the intersection of psychology and motorcycling, those essays explored not only what motivates riders, but social and emotional aspects of all sorts of motorcycle-related experiences, whether in the saddle, at the workbench, on a racetrack, or during a trail-side conversation. Don’t have that kind of time? Not susceptible to shameless plugs? Then the following introduction will have to suffice.

I lost my motorcycling virginity to a cute Honda Trail 70 soon after adding “-teen” to my age. The presence of bikes in my life has been the most consistent feature of my existence since. I alternated between on- and off-road riding for many years before realizing it was cheaper to accumulate a stable of varied mounts than to keep losing money on frequent exchanges. In the process, I’ve owned, repaired, and modified a multitude of machines, including motocrossers, sport-tourers, crotch-rockets, dual-sports, sport-nakeds, woods racers, and trials bikes (gas and electric). While testing motorcycles with MCN, I added ADV, cruiser, and land-yacht touring categories to my resume. I’ve sampled racetracks across the country, savored public road delicacies like the Blue Ridge Parkway, Deal’s Gap and the Pacific Coast Highway, and ridden the flat, sandy trails of Florida and South Carolina, as well as the rocky, root-strewn mountainside roller-coasters of Tennessee and Colorado. I couldn’t begin to pick a favorite; there’s little not to love about motorcycling!

Speaking of favorites, I also have trouble choosing between riding and wrenching. I’ve been assembling and disassembling as long as I can remember. At times, this has been out of necessity, but most often it’s been born of curiosity and fascination. Clever engineering, elegant design and meticulous craftsmanship are the sexiest non-sexual things I can think of, and when I encounter them, I have to know them more intimately. With tools. With explanations by articulate experts. With the primal sensations of touch and movement. Uncovering an artfully constructed clutch can be as exhilarating as arcing through a graceful sweeper and finding an idyllic vista at its exit. The magnificent contours of a truly great wrench always prompt an admiring pause. In another life, I would be a mechanic. In this one, I can only hope to inspire others to explore the joys available in their garages, many of which are more accessible than they might seem. If an untrained person like me can write a four-part, 32-page piece on reprogramming fuel-injection (excessive even for a tech-focused magazine like MCN), then maybe others will push further in their learning and experimentation, too.

My initial foray into journalism was similar to what I’d always done in my garage – I dove in to find out what’s possible. One snowy day shortly after launching my day-job career, I decided to try writing an article about motorcycling. At that time, I was devouring a dozen or more moto-mags a month, cover to cover. I envied those who got to make a living doing what I had to relegate to my spare time and discretionary finances. Much to my surprise, I got to join them.

Mark’s 2013 BMW F 800 GT.

After getting two essays published in Sport Rider, MCN picked me up as an increasingly regular contributor and allowed me to cover a wider and wider range of topics. It was almost as life-changing as my first Honda. Yes, I got to make a few bucks enjoying my recreational activities as a paid professional of sorts. However, the most wonderful aspect was completely unexpected: I was suddenly in communication with a huge cadre of fellow enthusiasts – like-minded, passionate, knowledgeable folks I’d never encountered before.

You see, my entire motorcycling experience up to that point had been pretty solitary. None of my childhood friends had motorcycles, nor did any of my college or grad-school peers. Professional colleagues, ditto. I occasionally rode with guys I’d meet out on the road, but none of those attachments stuck. Aside from a tear-inducing sense of fellowship at the first road race I attended (Loudon, 1991), motorcycling was always accompanied by isolation and alienation. People with whom I shared the rest of my life didn’t understand anything about my love of riding, and I’d never had the good fortune of stumbling upon others who did.

Writing connected me to my people. The magazine could have been called “Motorcycle Community News,” as far as I was concerned. Sharing information, telling tales, asking questions, offering advice, getting feedback, collaborating with editors and other contributors, expanding my horizons via others’ amazing accounts – these things transformed my beloved avocation into a rich source of interpersonal discovery and camaraderie. Eventually, I made inroads into rider groups in my area and acquired some great buddies who don’t regard motorcycling as juvenile, reckless, or merely unappealing. I’m extremely grateful to have such companions in the flesh. There was nevertheless something extra special about talking with people all over the country through the printed word, a communion often serving as vital counterweight to the stress of doing therapy.

As I’ve aged, I’ve lost interest in much of the derring-do I used to consider thrilling. I no longer possess the reflexes, strength, and stamina of my younger days, though I cling to as much of them as I can. I haven’t owned a hardcore sport bike for many years, and I can’t imagine trying to scale any more of the vertical rock gardens I once took pride in conquering. These days, I’m more aware of my mortality and limitations, more averse to pain and the expenses of repairing bike and body. I’m not yet ready for a rocking chair at the retirement home, but my days of trying to twist the knob to 11 are over. Somewhere in the seven-to-eight range feels pretty good now. (Full disclosure: my own personal calibration has always been modest compared to other moto-journalists.)

In that spirit, and in deference to a mildly herniated disk refusing to heal, I started hunting a motorcycle I could ride all day more comfortably than my trusty old KTM SuperDuke, the bike I’ve owned longer than any other, and which has felt like the proverbial old shoe to me since my first moment on it. I can’t imagine ever selling it, but I also can’t imagine ever taking a real road trip on it, and I’m itching for some travel. Cross-country voyages are rising up through the ranks of intriguing possibilities, displacing chicane apexes and rutted single-track in my routine daydreams. These weren’t entirely novel fantasies; I’d taken trips before on sport-tourers, and even full-fledged sport bikes (never again!). But my visions were becoming grander, even as my tolerance for discomfort was narrowing. Eating up miles, taking in scenery, riding relaxed – distance would be my new frontier.

KTM Superduke, like the one Mark rides. Editor’s Note: This is not Mark! Photo courtesy of Motorcycle News (aka the other MCN).

I figured I should stick my toe in the water first; I needed a starter bike for this emergent mission. I know better than to buy another pair of exotic running shoes in hopes they’ll motivate me to pound the pavement; better see if I really like this stuff before investing big. At the same time, I didn’t want something with inadequacies possibly negatively distorting my assessment of the pursuit itself. The F 800 GT occupied the sweet spot with Germanic precision. MCN gave it a rare superlative rating, it’s sporty enough to feel familiar and comfy enough to ride for hours on end, and it’s technically and aesthetically interesting enough to sit and ogle in the garage with a well-crafted pint.

With a BMW added to my two-wheeled fleet and a void in my life where MCN had been, I reached out to Wes Fleming, wondering if I might qualify as a potential contributor. He graciously agreed to give me a shot. I’ll be writing in this space as a psychologist, and elsewhere as a non-clinician who simply loves all things motorcycling. I’m inspired to get to know you as a readership, and look forward to joining you in the countless adventures awaiting us on the road or trail, the garage floor, and – best of all – in sharing the joys of riding with each other.

I just ask you to be gentle during my break-in period.

Editor’s Note: We’ll be posting more from Mark every week or so. Check out Mark’s book Why We Ride on Amazon.

6 thoughts on “The 60-year-old virgin

  • I was very happy to discover Mark Barnes as a new contributor to the BMW Owners News. His column in the lately departed MCN was most often the one I read first with each issue. I have to say your article introducing yourself to BMW club members was appropriate even in the “me” details as I can imagine you may not be a familiar name to everyone in the organization. Your articles were always relevant and informative – keep up the great work and welcome from a member since 1984 and a rider of over 50 years.

  • Lovely post Mark. Welcome to the MOA, an eclectic group of roundel riders that truly, all need a therapist!

  • I used to enjoy your columns in MCN; they were far more interesting than most of what they published. Nonetheless, it seems to me you’ve gotten a bit too full of yourself. Who really needs all the details? I would suggest toning down the ‘me’ stuff and focusing on what you know about motorcycles, riding, and the psychology thereof. Trying to be gentle 🙂

  • Congrats on your choice of the great F800GT as your current mount, Mark. I owned the same year/color as yours and I can attest to its dependability, fuel economy, relative ease and cost of maintenance and all-round sport-touring proficiency. I finally sold mine with 54,000 trouble-free miles to an enthusiastic buyer eager to get back on two wheels. I probably would have purchased another IF BMW hadn’t ceased production with the 2016 model year AND had offered the GT with the later model 850 GS (270 degree crank) motor which proved to be slightly smoother and certainly better-sounding than the outgoing 360 degree crank arrangement found on the F800 ST/GT models. I now ride the R1250RS with fabulous power and more technology than I will ever use but, I still miss certain features the F800 GT offered and that I thoroughly enjoyed.

    Ride Safe

    Sam Jones
    MOA# 15859

  • Mark – welcome to the fold! I really enjoyed your article in ON magazine and it struck a chord with me. I too lost my motorcycling virginity to a Honda Trail 70 and then progressed to a Honda SL-70 not long after. Now, many years later, I also recently joined the ranks of BMW riders and in the last year joined a local BMW riders club, but with COVID, events and meetings have largely been canceled. However, like many others, I’m looking forward to a better 2021 and a chance meet other local riders and share that common passion for motorcycles.

    I’m looking forward to seeing future articles from you!


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