Switching Roles as a Motorcyclist Parent

Reader Contribution by Richard Backus

When I was in my late teens and first started riding, my mother hated it. Not really a worrier by nature, and definitely not a helicopter parent, she was what I’d call prudently cautious, willing to accept a certain amount of risk because, hey, living is risk. And yet as rational as I knew she was, by my reckoning she harbored irrational fears of what might happen to me out on the battleground of the highway. I never gave my forays out on the open road a second thought, aided no doubt by youthful certainty and the conviction I could take whatever the road threw my way. How bad can it get? Rain? Wind? Just pay attention, ride accordingly and you’ll be fine, right? 

Whatever the conditions, it never occurred to me I wouldn’t make it to my destination, so I found my mother’s concern irritating and almost insulting, an expression of a lack of faith in my capacity. I really didn’t get it. Then my own children started hitting the road.
It’s not like I haven’t paved the way for them. I was independent then, I still am today, and I’ve always encouraged my kids — now adults — to be the same. Which begs the question: Just how surprised should I be that they both respond enthusiastically to the siren call of the road? Not at all, of course, but that apparently doesn’t rule out — and this has been surprising for me — my own rising parental apprehension when one of them does. 
The other weekend, Charlie, now 21, asked if he could borrow my 1973 BMW R75/5 for a weekend trip with his girlfriend, destination Jasper, Arkansas, and the 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell, a wild rock climbing competition-cum-festival in the Ozarks. I said yes, naturally enough, and set to making sure the BMW was good for the 700-mile round-trip run. Charlie’s first tour was with me last year, when the two of us rode 750 miles from Leeds, Alabama, back to Kansas following the annual Barber Vintage Festival, Charlie on the BMW, me on my Laverda RGS. I knew from that and subsequent rides that he’s developed good skills (it helps that he’s an avid bicyclist and that he took the MSF rider safety class), yet as excited as I was for him and the ride ahead, I was amazed to find myself fighting something akin to a welling fear, a worry about what could happen to him and his girlfriend on the road. And it was driving me crazy. “God help me,” I thought, “I have become my mother.”
They took off in the afternoon, a six-hour ride on two-lane roads ahead. They made it without issue, even if the weather wasn’t perfect, a fact which, perversely enough, often makes a trip that much more memorable. A mid-evening text from Charlie told me they were at their camp site, Charlie briefly describing the day’s ride as “horrible winds for the first two-thirds — and incredible riding for the last third.” Nice. At least the last part was good. And they were safe. A palpable sense of relief washed over me, and I started thinking about their return trip, now with a little less apprehension.
In the end the BMW ran fine, Charlie never put a wheel wrong and nobody tried to run them off the road. The weather may not have played out as they’d have liked, but it never occurred to Charlie they wouldn’t make it in one piece, just as it never did to me when my mother worried about me all those years ago. Ain’t it funny how life goes around?
Richard Backus
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