On Death And Motorcycles

Reading time ~10 minutes

The identities have been changed to protect the innocents…

The identities have been changed to protect the innocents…

Warning: This writing is an experimental piece about a topic is deeply personal. It’s about to get real, so buckle-up Bucko, and come along for the ride.

For anyone who knows me even a little bit, it’s no secret that I love motorcycling. I enjoy few things, if any, more than being on the open road, carving through twisties, enjoying the angry growl of a high-revving V4 engine, delivering a healthy dose dopamine to the brain. Even if that were the one and only benefit I got from riding a bike, it would still be my #1 hobby, but there is indeed much more to it than that.

I don’t ride to cultivate a certain image (although I do love wearing colorful leather jackets that weigh 20lbs). I do because it is calling my name every day and I can neither explain it, nor can I resist it. Don’t talk to me about motorcycles in the middle of winter when my bike is stored away in the garage, impatiently waiting for spring, it will not be a fun conversation. It’s one of those all-consuming things that just takes over one’s life. I used to be a casual rider, the kind of motorcyclist who goes from A to B for practical reasons and does the occasional out-of-town outing for a few hours on a sunday. However, the drive to ride - pun intended -  has grown over the years and now, I am only fully satisfied with multi-day trips clocking in thousands of kilometers. 

There is something about the transient motorcycle-bum lifestyle that one is forced to adopt while on the road that is deeply satisfying. Indeed, as a function of riding a small, lightweight vehicle, it is impossible to travel with more than the bare essentials: basic camping gear, non-perishable foods - canned tuna, rice and boiled eggs are the road gourmet’s treats of choice - and a few changes of clothes. While it is always a bit tricky to abandon the comforts of our modern urban lifestyle, a few days on the road makes me forget the luxury of a warm, fluffy bed pretty quickly when traded for beautiful, unfamiliar landscapes and endless, billiard-smooth ribbons of asphalt. To me, that is the ultimate expression of freedom: a loose destination, no time constraints and not knowing where I’m going to sleep at night.

There are things that every serious motorcycle rider experiences while on the road, but few are able to express in a meaningful manner. One of those things, is the realization that life is a giant paradox, where opposing forces constantly work in tension: Night & day, black & white, happy & sad, rich & poor are only a few and some of the most obvious of these contradictions. When it comes to riding, the paradox takes the form of taking big, possibly lethal risks, in exchange for a fleeting reward.

Indeed, on the one hand, riding is exciting, exhilarating and a potent source of adrenalin. On the other hand, it is also an incredibly dangerous activity that requires the utmost level of attention, as the difference between remaining on the bike and wiping out lies in split-second decisions. With 100+ horsepower on a 220 kg bike, the power to weight ratio is that of a modern-day Supercar. Put another way, nothing but the rarest of ultra-luxury sports cars is faster than a moderately powerful bike. And I’m not even talking about the crotch rockets that you see bozos in t-shirts and flip-flops stunting on the highway (that’s a rant I’ll save for an in-person discussion about how these clowns make all bikers look bad). 

As a thrill-seeker, I can say that there are few things I’ve tried that provide as much excitement. Yes, bungee-jumping will give you an intense adrenaline rush, but it’s typically short-lived and the risk of injury jumping off of a bridge is practically zero, given the safety measures that these operations are obligated to provide. Beyond excellent preparedness and decent riding skills, motorcyclists have to ensure that their machine is well-maintained and constantly on the lookout for issues that could spiral into accident-generating blow-outs if not addressed early. It’s in many ways the modern-day incarnation of a rider and his horse: I have to take good care of my ride so that it’s safe to ride and can take good care of me in return. One can neglect the maintenance of a car with few dire potential consequences beyond being stranded on the side of the road. Doing so with a motorcycle can mean your chain will break while doing 120 km/h on the highway. Locking the rear wheel at this speed is no fun, trust me on that one. 

It is that constant tension between risk and reward that I find fascinating. Riding a bike is cheap thrills, but if I am not careful it can mean serious injury or death. Having experienced the sudden passing of my mother just about two years ago, death is something that has been on my mind a lot since. Like most, I have experienced the mourning of a loved one and the subsequent grieving period, but it also created a deeper appreciation of life. I’m fortunate to have had a mother whose life’s work was as impressive as she was productive. Coming to grips with her legacy was both a surprise and a wake-up call, as she spent her professional  and personal life caring about others in a completely selfless fashion. As a result, dozens of perfect strangers came out to her funeral to pay their respects and show how much she positively affected them, and these were only a tiny portion of the people she was able to touch throughout her life. It made me realize that if I could accomplish even half of what she did, that would amount to a life well lived, but also that making a difference doesn’t have to be shouted from the rooftop in order to attract attention. If anything, I would say that it is more of a long, quiet slog behind the scenes, the results of which are not always obvious to anyone, especially not the person practicing selfless giving. I have become very grateful for what I have and am getting better everyday at appreciating the little things and people around me, but also much less afraid of pushing forward and stand for the things I believe in. Her legacy permeates everything I do.

It also triggered a profound desire in me to share my own experiences with others, in order to help them navigate the trials of life. I personally think that death is not something that we talk about enough in our culture, yet ironically that’s the only thing that absolutely 100% certain in life. We would be more comfortable with our own impermanence if it was a more accepted part of the culture and as a result, help us focus on what’s truly important for us. That’s why I enjoy so much practicing an activity that constantly reminds me of my own mortality. It’s not that I fear my imminent demise whenever I hop on the bike, but rather that the risk of something dramatic happening is constantly present in the back of my mind. While it may seem a little somber to think of motorcycling in these terms, I don’t think it has to be that way. The inherent danger is a sobering expression of reality and helps me stay grounded. It is a constant reminder to act in a manner that’s congruent with the person I am striving to be and a fantastic way to remind myself that I need to take the such actions that, if I were gone tomorrow, I would have no regrets whatsoever. A friend recently told me that being in these risky situations made us more aware and deliberate of our own behaviour, and I couldn’t agree more.

The parallel between this passion of mine and what I do for a living is that I find inspiration in being alone on the road, riding in a spirited fashion on backroads where very few other people venture out. It brings a different perspective to everything else I do as one literally looks at the world differently when seeing the world from a motorcycle. It makes my work better, more inspired and pushes me to work harder so I can take the time off to go on that next, 6000 km road-trip.

I recently completed a 4000 km tour of eastern Quebec, where a buddy and I rode around the Gaspé peninsula. Not only this is a magnificent part of the world, that I had no idea existed, but the trip was deeply fulfilling on a personal level. I learned more about myself than I would have in doing months of deep self-introspection. Being thrown into an unfamiliar environment without real safety net forced me to look at things from a different perspective and was a source of a number of epiphanies along the way. While on the road, I realized that we cannot fear what we understand. As human beings, if we make a genuine effort to understand the unfamiliar, all fear of the unknown instantly vanishes. Call me hopelessly naive, but it’s worth trying to gain a deeper understanding of the world around us, because at the very least we grow by learning new things and at best, we can be more intentional and bring more meaning to the things we all work towards, having the benefit of being a little more open to different perspectives, which in turn makes our work, and lives better.

As serendipity would have it I have recently stumbled on a little poem about riding. I’ll leave you with that as I think it perfectly encapsulates the essence of the ideas conveyed in this writing:


I own a motorcycle because of a personal life choice.

One day when I am very old and when I can not ride anymore, it will be in my garage as a trophy of my memories.

I have met people who taught me something and have the same spirit.

I meet people now who get wisdom from me.

I get wet,

I get cold,

And I have been hot,

I was afraid,

I fell,

And I stood up,

I even hurt myself,

But also, I laughed out loud with the wind.

I spoke a thousand times with myself and still do.

I sang and shouted with joy like a madman,

And yes ... sometimes I cried.

I have seen wonderful places because of motorcycles.

I have made curves that even my dad would be proud of; other times I made curves full of terror.

I stopped many times to see a landscape.

I spoke with perfect strangers.

I go out with frustrations inside and return home with a feeling of absolute peace in my heart.

I always think how dangerous it is, knowing that the meaning of courage is to advance even feeling fear.

Every time I go up to my ride I think about how wonderful it is. I learned through gestures to communicate with other riders.

I spend money that I do not have, I gave up many things, but it's all worth it...

My bike is not a means of transportation but is a piece of machinery with wheels and “soul” that I am blessed with; it's part of who I am.

I love my friends and the joy of great people & motorcycles!

I would love nothing more than hearing how your own experiences shaped you. Leave a note in the comments or send me a note directly.

Arnaud Marthouret is the founder of rvltr and leads their strategy, visual communications and media efforts. He has helped numerous architects and interior designers promote themselves in their best light - pun intended - in order to help them run more effective practices and grow in a meaningful way.

If you have questions about this article or rvltr, or want to chat about your strategy and communications, you can leave a comment, share with a friend, or reach him at arnaudrvltr.studio.