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Low strung

I just got a massage, a really good…long…thorough…deep-tissue massage—the kind that leaves you in an altered state of consciousness. I’m not talking about mere physical relaxation, although that’s obviously part of it. This experience also includes a psychological shift that compels one to put multiple ellipses in the very first sentence of an explanation. Everything is slooowed waaay down. My gait is different. My speech is different. I sit and stand and gesture differently. I’m not tired or sleepy. My mind isn’t dulled or sedated. Actually, I feel sharper than when I’m frantically trying to multitask a half-dozen chores in the name of efficient productivity. Why would this make me think of my R 1250 RS while driving home from the massage therapist’s studio?

Aaaaahhh. Photo by pixabay.

The big boxer is certainly not slow. It holds up the sporting end of its “sport-tourer” designation quite well, with refined muscularity on tap all across the tach and impeccable handling manners in most any street riding environment. Sure, it’s heavy compared to the long list of frenetic, featherweight crotch-rockets I owned in years past, and its steering isn’t as nimble or precise, but those machines would inflict misery within the first hour of saddle time—usually before I’d even reached the twisty roads where they’d finally shine like a brilliant flare, and leave me feeling burnt to a crisp by late afternoon. Sport bikes are demanding, even as they deliver thrills. Steep rake and short wheelbases allow skilled and confident riders to change direction with blinding speed and little effort, but they also require riders of any denomination to exercise continuous oversight as their noses dart away from center in reaction to the tiniest errant input. These same bikes possess acceleration and braking capable of compressing eyeballs or launching them out of their sockets, all great fun (unless you’re an eyeball), but try to maintain a near-legal speed on the highway and such motorcycles will constantly strain to go faster, with sneering taunts that the two-digit zone on the speedometer is only for cowards.

Even so-called sport-nakeds can make me feel I’ve grown old, weak, and fragile. Among the other bikes in my garage sits a heavily modified ‘07 KTM 990 SuperDuke. It’s considerably lighter and faster than when it left Austria, but nowhere near as powerful and sophisticated as its modern-day descendants. It’s a true hot-rod that always felt like an exceptionally good fit for me in terms of its ergonomics and handling characteristics. I’ve been intoxicated by its bottomless grunt, and have even developed respect for its weird aesthetics. It was my favorite motorcycle of all time and I expected to keep it forever. Until now. As I’ve grown accustomed to the RS over my first year and a half of ownership, I’ve lost much of my taste for the SuperDuke. I can still revel in the KTM’s many expressions of immediacy, but its stiff suspension beats me up, its seat is too tall, its accommodations are too Spartan, its roar is too loud, and its intentions are too narrowly focused. It is an angry, high strung, wild beast and I am not. I never really was, but now I don’t even have the aspiration.

Thinking back to my massage, the therapist scolded me for doing too little stretching and not using my rollers as I should. I protested half-heartedly, like when my dentist raises doubts about how regularly I floss, but we all know I’m guilty as charged. The evidence in this case was how unyielding my muscles were under the therapist’s hands, which also meant her pressure yielded a lot more pain. As my eyes teared up, she chided me for harboring secret pride about this bodily feature, just like the college athletes on whom she works, and whom she educates about higher level athleticism: To be as strong as possible, as fast as possible, as agile as possible, bodies must be limber and relaxed, tensing only those muscles currently needed and then quickly releasing them back to a soft, pliable state of rest. I’m most definitely not such a creature, but while the musclebound stud with a rock-hard body looks and feels impressive to the unenlightened, he’ll be among the first injured, and the last to win any awards for grace. He’s way too high strung physically—and probably psychologically, as well, since he likely has no time to exercise (pun intended) the patience and humility involved in stretching and rolling; those activities just don’t have the macho glamour of pumping iron. This is how the SuperDuke seems to me now, despite the fact it’s much more civilized than the racer-replicas that preceded it. The KTM is perpetually impatient, brash, and raucous. Whenever it escapes the confines of my garage, it wants to flex, romp, and stomp, and it demands its rider join in.

The RS, by contrast, is low strung.

2023 R 1250 RS

The Beemer has nothing to prove. Although it has even more horsepower than the SuperDuke, it’s content to leave most of its tremendous strength unused when its unneeded. While its contours are both elegant and slightly menacing, it doesn’t scream, “Look at me!,” like the KTM’s origami styling and bright orange frame. The RS cradles its rider in comfort, rather than intimidating him or her with its raw brutality. Throughout my half-century as a motorcyclist, I’ve associated high performance with certain types of suffering. It has always been a trade-off—one Younger Me accepted enthusiastically. Not-so-young Me at least accepted it willingly in somewhat diluted form. Older Me, having now experienced a motorcycle that doesn’t require such compromises, isn’t keen on making those familiar sacrifices any longer. I don’t want a bike that’s easygoing and fun to cruise around on, but then can only muster anemic acceleration and sluggish handling when I feel like riding briskly or need to take evasive action in traffic. I want to know my motorcycle can perform like an elite athlete, but won’t test my fitness on every ride. This is just the latest aspect of the RS I’ve come to love. Its muscles are soft and slack until I call upon them. Then, and only then, are they instantaneously responsive, taut, and forceful, with cat-like reflexes (make that a really big cat) and impressive competence. Even sitting in my garage, its understated beauty delivers sensual delight without a hint of bravado or conceit.

One way to describe the low strung character is by contrasting the feeling of excitement with that of well-being. There’s certainly nothing wrong with excitement; in fact, it’s a necessary ingredient in the recipe for human happiness. It’s just not sufficient by itself in the long run. In the realm of motorcycling, I mean “long run” in two ways: a) over the course of a lengthy ride, and b) over the course of a riding lifetime. A sense of well-being is more comprehensive and never gets old. It can include moments of exhilaration, but they’re the proverbial icing on the cake. Other, more substantive factors form the foundation, like a solid sense of security, wide ranging abilities, and reliable stability across diverse situations. Whether we’re talking about a machine or a human being, these are the kinds of qualities that grow more valuable and deeply appreciated over time. Excitement, on the other hand, can become tiresome and disappointing.

Mark with his R 1250 RS.

We bond with our motorcycles in large part because we imbue them with human personality traits. We might be fond of Bike X because we enjoy its affable nature, in spite of—or perhaps because of—its utter lack of concern for advanced technology or high performance. Such motorcycles inspire us to eschew the constant pressure to do more and more, better and better, on the treadmill of “progress.” Another kind of bike, like my old KTM, offers us the chance to participate in its brawny, hyped-up intensity, which can feel glorious to a couch-potato, a little guy who’s been scrawny all his life (me), or a woman who wants to enjoy the thrill of stereotypically masculine power. Of course, motorcycling offers a broad spectrum of special-purpose machinery to offset any Walter Mitty’s self-consciousness about perceived deficiencies. At this point in my life, I’m most interested in something like “completion,” probably because I’ve found it so elusive. I want to integrate disparate parts into a coherent and satisfying whole. The low strung athleticism of the RS does exactly that.

While there are more specialized motorcycles that will handily outperform the RS in this or that domain, such exalted capabilities are overkill for someone with my levels of skill and ambition; what I can’t use is moot. As a street bike, my Beemer is a genuine jack-of-all-trades. It’s happy to ride at a relaxed pace without nagging me to wick it up! It’s happy to hustle vigorously through mountain curves, limited only by my meager talent and increasing sense of mortality—and it participates in these challenges without criticizing me, even while supplying copious room for me to improve. Lastly, it’s happy to be my friendly companion for a whole day or a whole week, tending to the declining tolerances of my aging body without calling attention to any such frailties.

Those who’ve been reading this column since my purchase of the RS may be growing weary of me extolling its virtues. Actually, I’m certain the praise I’ve bestowed upon it could just as easily be directed toward many other fine motorcycles, maybe including your own; I simply haven’t owned those bikes. I also figure this is the MOA, after all. If I can’t gush about the wonders of a BMW here, something’s very wrong. I never would have expected a massage to trigger a new conceptualization and fresh appreciation of yet another dimension of my Beemer’s greatness, but I’m glad it did and hope these revelations never end. A person can’t feel too much gratitude.

Mark Barnes is a clinical psychologist and motojournalist. To read more of his writings, check out his book Why We Ride: A Psychologist Explains the Motorcyclist’s Mind and the Love Affair Between Rider, Bike and Road, currently available in paperback through Amazon and other retailers.