My first introduction to the motorcycle life felt like a ripoff of a bad adventure movie, set against the backdrop of a sleeping Toh Payoh food court instead of the heavy streets of Manhattan, New York. It was almost 11 years ago, and I was meeting a newfound friend for the first time. He insisted on joining a bike gang roam across the streets of Singapore looking for supper.
“Do you know these people?,” I asked, oblivious to the fact that I was about to trust my life to this stranger.
“No, not really. I just joined this biking group on Facebook because we all ride the same bike,” he answered straddling himself across the seat of his Yamaha Fino 115.
True enough, the group was made of people from all walks of life, with only one common interest: modifying their scooters to the T. One of the riders had modified her scooter to look like the iconic Harley Davidson, a feat only possible by modifying into a longer handlebar, bike cover (all black, of course), and leather seat covers.
We spent the night riding to the awe of strangers who marvelled at the sight of 20 odd mods of Finos on the streets. We went from one end of the island to another for supper and dessert, unhindered by the concept of how late it was or how far away the eateries were.
We were unstoppable.
The exhilaration from that night motivated me to take up riding in 2009. After 11 years, 4 motorcycles and 2 minor accidents later, I have fallen in love with riding not only as a mode of transportation but also a hobby of sorts, talking about motorcycles like a newfound lover at every chance I can.
This love has been tested by bad weather, inconsiderate road users and testy comments from others who understood little of this underrated vehicle. Here are some common myths about riding that I hope to put to rest.
This is by far, one of the most demeaning myths about riders that I have heard. The comments range from well-meaning colleagues who ask “why don’t you just afford a car?” or an accusatory condominium guard asking if you are here to deliver things just because you are a Malay rider.
Behind these comments, hides the assumption that people who ride motorcycles cannot afford the luxuries of cars and had to settle for a cheaper mode of transport. True that cars are more expensive than bikes. MoneySmart released a breakdown of machine price, ownership and running cost of a motorcycle and a car. The one-time cost of getting the license and owning a motorcycle alone is only 20% to that of a car.
Yet the truth is more nuanced than cost. These assumptions paint a broad stroke about riders and their choices. Some riders prefer motorcycles than cars because it is more convenient and economically friendlier to their circumstances. One thing for sure, it is way easier for motorcyclists to park in Singapore than cars.
The history of the bad rep for motorcycle gangs can be traced to 1947 at a post-race party celebrating the American Motorcyclist Association race. Some overenthusiastic attendees got themselves drunk and damaged a few storefronts in small town Hollister, California. This was later misconstrued by Life magazine as an all-out riot, with the image of a drinking biker Eddie Davenport sealing the infamous myths of bikers as violent hooligans.
In Singapore, however, motorcycle gangs are often portrayed as hobbyist groups for people who share a common interest for bikes. These often depend on the model of motorcycles that a person is riding.
In September 2014, when I bought my Bajaj Pulsar 125, my cousin introduced me to a Facebook group called Pulsarians Singapore. There, I found other Pulsar riders posting invitations to hang out, take a road trip down to Malaysia or troubleshoot motorcycle problems. Riders would post a video of a rattling sound in their bike (possibly a valve issue) or problems starting their bikes (likely due to low battery) and others would comment on the possible issues and how to fix it.
This emulates why motorcycle gangs started in the first place. James Quinn, a University of North Texas professor and motorcycle gang expert wrote of how young soldiers returning from World War II who yearned for the sense of camaraderie and adrenaline rush, sought to ride motorcycles as a bonding activity.
It is for that sense of belonging that motorcycle groups like Pulsarians Singapore and the Fino group exist, to help support each other because they too can relate.
Lane splitting is a standard skill set of any motorcycle riders where riders ride between two lanes of vehicles, moving in the same direction. It is common especially during the rush hours when traffic is heavy or at a standstill. Motorcyclists love the ability to shave off time while drivers look on with envy.
But lane splitting is dangerous. Often, motorcycles are hidden in the blind spot of other vehicles and road users have to be constantly aware, making sure that very vulnerable riders are not caught in the onslaught of sudden brakes or lane changing.
When I got my third motorcycle, a three-wheeled Yamaha Tricity 155, I noticed the change in the width of my vehicle immediately. The bike was larger and its axle did not allow for immediate swerving in case of emergencies. It was under these considerations that I took a while before building the courage to lane split again, despite having 8 years of riding experience.
Still, there is a necessity for lane splitting. A rider’s view is often impeded by larger vehicles like minivans or lorries. Even while maintaining a safe distance in a single lane, the risk of accidents is still present. This partially explains why some riders would ride in between vehicles, increasing their chances to swerve out of danger and reduce the impact of accidents against larger vehicles.
Regardless, even if lane splitting is legal in Singapore, it takes a communal effort to be aware of road safety not only for yourself but for other road users. A good gauge is to only lane split if you are confident that it is safe for you to do so.
There is a term “Ride or Die” amongst riders in Singapore. As morbid and tone-deaf as it sounds, the term describes someone who would rather die than never ride again in their lives. This was later adopted by urban dictionaries as a symbol of loyalty to the end, regardless of the hardship that comes from something.
Being a rider involves a lot of hardships. Motorcycle riders are one of the most vulnerable road users. Imagine hurtling down the road at a speed of 90km/h with other larger vehicles, with only a light jacket and a helmet to shield you from any mishaps.
But, you should also consider the tradeoff: motorcycles are convenient, economically friendlier, and easier to maintain than other motor vehicles. The dangers that come with riding can be mitigated by practising safe riding to the best of one’s abilities. Personally, I enjoy the sense of freedom about being able to step out into the night, with only the consideration of “will it rain?” that attracts me to ride.
So the next time you hear someone giving a baseless comment that seems like a myth about riding, come back to the basis that different people enjoy different things given their circumstances (in the wise words of cartoonist Adam Ellis: let people enjoy things). Opt to clarify these comments with riders, or simply say “ride safe”—it helps to know that the reason you worry about riders has always been because you care about us too.
To my fellow bikers, have a safe ride. I’ll see you on the road soon.
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