Two-wheeled Freedom on the Open Road

Riding motorcycles is good for the heart and soul, and these insanely passionate motorcycle riders will tell you why.

In a little house tucked away in an Ames, Iowa neighborhood, an old worn-down garage door creaks open. It’s still early in the morning, before all the regular working folk have even brewed up their first pot of coffee. The birds are chirping, the sun is shining, the roads are empty and totally silent.

A monstrous roar erupts from the garage. The old lady next-door gets a rude awakening. Out of the darkness of the garage, a motorcycle and its rider shoot out full-throttle, slinging smoke and terrifying noise into the air, and rockets forward onto the empty road ahead. Not a single car in sight. The rider can feel the morning sun on his face and the wind running through his hair and the heavy rumble of the engine beneath him. He closes his eyes and soaks in the bliss.

The rider opens his eyes and finds himself slouched over in his chair in one of his classes on a bitter cold winter afternoon. The whole thing had all been just a dream.

The rider is Marc Seeman, a 28-year-old marketing major at Iowa State, and recently he’s been daydreaming a lot about riding his motorcycle; almost constantly, in fact. He and so many other motorcycle riders at Iowa State are practically pulling their hair out waiting for a chance to hit the road again. It’s almost like they’ve been going for months without sex.

And for these guys, comparing motorcycle riding to having sex isn’t too far off.

Motorcycle riders — no matter where they are or where they come from — are some of the most passionate walks of life you’ll ever meet.

“They’re a blast to ride. If you ever need a reason to get into them, just go for one ride. That’s all it takes,” Seeman says.

Seeman knows all about being a passionate rider. He’s only been riding motorcycles for a few years, but he comes off as someone who has been around the block. His tiny garage is packed to the ceiling with everything motorcycles: rusty toolboxes, greasy engines, half-built custom rides, promotional stickers plastered wherever there’s empty space and a Mad Max poster covering the window. This garage is his motorcycle sanctuary, a place where he comes to escape and admire his bikes.

Seeman spends a lot of his time in this garage working on his bikes. Photo: Michael Finn

Seeman describes the first bike he owned, a vintage Honda road bike, as a “pile of shit.” It was always breaking down and always requiring new parts. For someone who’s just getting into motorcycles, a bike like this is pretty standard. But he made do with what he had, and as a result, he gained a much deeper understanding of how they work.

Many people will say there are “cliques” in the motorcycle world. There’s the sport bike enthusiasts who crave speed. The loyal Harley owners — a proud subset of American people that might as well have their own country and government. The vintage bike lovers, who love anything that looks and feels old, because that’s the way bikes ought to be. And of course, the people who have no problem riding those ugly three-wheeled abominations… these are the same people who have no shame in wearing their shit-stained sweatpants out for a stroll around Walmart.

If you had to place Seeman into one of these cliques, he’d fit right in with the vintage bikers. Over the last five or six years, he’s owned six different bikes — some of them complete and road-ready motorcycles, others incomplete project bikes known as “basket cases” — and all them have been old bikes.

The thing about old bikes is that they’re almost always a pain in the ass, both literally and figuratively. Literally, because riding them for an extended period of time is terribly uncomfortable, especially with the cafe racers (a certain popular style of vintage bike), and figuratively, because they’re always breaking down.

“There’s a certain level of knowledge and patience you have to have with the old motorcycles, because you’re eventually going to have to fix something,” Seeman says.

Pains in the ass aside, vintage bikes have a certain unmistakable coolness about them, like something Steve McQueen would ride off into the sunset with a beautiful model hugging on to his back.

Vintage bikes are Seeman’s bread and butter, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t appreciate the other types. He admires anything and anyone who rides on two wheels.

“All motorcycles are cool in some way or another, it’s just a matter of what kind of riding you want to do, what suits your lifestyle,” Seeman says.

Brandon Shearer, 27 years old and a senior in mechanical engineering, has been riding sport bikes for about two years.

“I thought it would be fun to get into, and plus, it’s a little different and riskier feel,” Shearer says. “I’ve never liked convertibles, but I like riding a bike.”

Blasting through the open air at top speed on a sport bike is one of Shearer’s favorite things about riding. He likes it so much that he’s crazy enough to do it almost year-round, even if it’s minus 10 degrees outside and the roads are covered in patches of ice. He’s that guy.

“It kinda feels badass. It’s like, no one else is doing this,” Shearer says.

Shearer once got frostbite under his chin from riding around in the cold. He says he risks his skin like this mostly because gas is a lot cheaper on a bike, but also because he simply enjoys riding. Above all, he rides year round because he’s a diehard. It takes a lot to keep Shearer off his bike.

His current bike, a 2001 Honda Nighthawk, is a bright-red sport bike that moves and looks like a racer but rides like a touring motorcycle — a “sport hybrid.”

Shearer on his ‘01 Nighthawk. Photo: Michael Finn

Sport bikes are made to go fast, but touring motorcycles are made to go long distances. They’re designed to be comfortable, gas-efficient, capable of a decent amount of storage, and to ride smoothly.

Shearer’s other bike, a touring Nighthawk, has been on some long trips. Not long ago, Shearer rode it 900 miles in a single day to visit his girlfriend living in Wyoming at the time. Towed behind the bike was a custom luggage rack he himself built, carrying a gas can and his duffle bag.

“On one hand, it was exhausting,” Shearer says. “But on the other hand, it was so fun, and I made good time getting halfway across the country.”

The custom luggage rack Shearer built is one of the very few small-scale things he has created on his own. Fabrication fascinates him and he wants to learn more, but he has only dipped his toes into the custom fabrication world.

Other guys, like Brian Paul, a 28-year-old ISU alumni who lives and works in Ames, have been toying around with bikes for years.

Paul is standing in front of his workbench in his Ames garage-workshop, feeling around with his blackened mechanic’s hands and looking for some unnamed tool. There’s an entire wall of tools in front of him and even more behind him. Huge steel drills, bandsaws, metal grinders, almost everything you’d ever need to do some custom fabrication.

Paul working on — or as he calls it, “wrenching on” — one of his mopeds. Photo: Michael Finn

Paul is a mechanic by trade — he works at a parts shop in Ames and he graduated with a degree in industrial technology — but he’s been messing around with machines for as long as he can remember. As a kid, he took apart lawnmowers and weed-eaters just to see what was inside. His dad, a marine mechanic, always coached him when he ran into a snag on one of his projects.

Over time, Paul’s fabrication skills improved and he started working on more serious projects.

His first project bike is still hiding in a dark corner of his garage. It’s a mean yet hilarious looking beast: a matte black mini-chopper complete with skull shifter, red bandana-patterned banana seat, spider web weldings on the frame, lawnmower engine positioned directly under the ass, and wheels that look like they were ripped off a little kid’s Red Flyer wagon.

It’s not a pretty machine, but it’s an important reminder of where Paul started out. He’s come a long way since the mini-chopper… since then, he’s owned thirteen bikes, many of which were projects. One of his more recent project bikes was an original 1972 Yamaha DS7 Cruiser — another basic Japanese road bike — until he transformed it into a beautiful cafe racer with plenty of the dangerous power that comes with most stock racers.

“This thing is such a cop magnet. A cops sees this thing, he won’t think it’s street legal. But it’s weird, because it totally is,” Paul says.

Paul isn’t kidding about how cops feel about motorcycles.

Cops foam at the mouth when they see motorcycles zipping by at over a hundred miles an hour, especially when it’s a sport bike.

Sport bikes, or perhaps better known as “crotch rockets,” started gaining popularity around the 1980s. Before they hit the mainstream, these bikes were used for nothing more than professional racing on closed-circuit race tracks. The people who rode these bikes were part of a small group of people who knew how to ride them without getting themselves killed. Racing is what these bikes are built for… but nowadays they’re mostly used as everyday get-around bikes, and Paul thinks that can cause some problems.

“For the purpose that they [sport bikes] serve, they’re incredible. They’re the fastest thing, best handling thing, but as far as having something like that as your everyday street bike, it’s just not that practical,” Paul says. “If you’re a young guy, I can see the appeal. It’s the fastest, craziest thing you can buy that’s street legal.”

Seeman agrees with Paul: “It’s crazy to think about. If you were to buy a Formula One car, you’d never be able to drive it on the street. But you can buy a 1000 CC sport bike that isn’t too far off from the fastest bikes used on race tracks, and you can ride it down the road.”

There’s no doubt about it. Sport bikes are super adrenaline-pumping, impressive marvels of modern technology, but they’re also extremely dangerous. Of course, all motorcycles can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing, but sport bikes have a lot more power than other bikes, and many people — often young kids purchasing a sport bike for the first time — don’t know how to safely use that power.

Sport bikes aren’t always the most powerful bikes, however. The all-around ruler of the power bike class is the Harley, the most well-known name in American-made motorcycles.

Justin Sheridan, 20 years old and a criminal justice major, identifies with the Harley Davidson brand. His entire family is loyal to the black and orange brand, and Justin has been around it since he was just a kid.

“It’s the classic American motorcycle,” Sheridan says. “You can tell a Harley from any other bike just by the sound it makes. That’s my favorite part about them.”

Sheridan sitting on his V-Star. It’s not a Harley, but it’s damn close. Photo: Michael Finn

Sheridan still hasn’t been able to afford a Harley of his own. For now, he owns a 2003 Yamaha V-Star, a big dog of a bike that looks and sounds a lot like a Harley. He has ridden his V-Star all the way to Missouri, Wisconsin and Minnesota, and this year he plans to take it to Sturgis — an infamous motorcycle festival held every year in South Dakota for the Harley Davidson types — and he plans to ride alongside a few of his Harley-riding family members.

Some people ride motorcycles as nothing more than a hobby. Sheridan doesn’t quite fall into that category. He rides to get places. Last summer, he put 8,000 miles on his V-Star… while only putting 80 miles on his pickup truck.

All these guys have very different tastes in motorcycles. Some like them fast and dangerous, some like them sturdy and dependable, some like them raw and vintaged.

But if there’s one thing these guys have in common, it’s why they ride.

It’s not what you ride, it’s why you ride. That’s the common thread among all riders. No matter what kind of machine you’ve got underneath you, all riders know how great that feeling is when you hit the road, the wind blowing through your hair and the deafening roar of the engine beneath you. That feeling of absolute, blissful, meditative, open-road freedom.