Motorcycle emptiness: the psychology of motorcycling (or, how to get your brain into gear)

by Jill Boulton

The Manic Street Preachers’ excellent first album, Generation Terrorists, was particularly notable for the track Motorcycle Emptiness. For me, motorcycle emptiness is an acute psychological condition that can be triggered by any one of the following symptoms:

  1. Not owning a motorcycle; (particularly on a warm sunny day)
  2. Being unable to ride one’s motorcycle; (particularly on a warm sunny day)
  3. A psychological block/negative feeling relating to one’s motorcycle, which prevents the rider from riding.

I’ve experienced all three symptoms of Motorcycle Emptiness during my motorcycling lifetime, but an unfortunate juxtaposition of events conspired to bring about a severe attack of symptom 3 this year, which, at its worst, was so bad I even considered selling my bike – purchased just 10 months ago!

This was serious, and illustrates the significance of rider attitude. There has been plenty of discussion about how motorcyclists are the happiest commuters and suffer less from stress, and how they needed to get out during the 2020 lockdown to save their mental health. The mental health benefits of motorcycling are well documented, but what about the psychological block that prevents you from swinging your leg over your bike in the first place?

First, let me indulge in another music-cum-motorcycling reference. I can’t discuss the subject of motorcycling and psychology much further without reference to the late Neil Peart of rock legends Rush, a band I was lucky enough to see a few years back. (I’ve also seen the Manic Street Preachers twice, but we’ll stick to the subject of motorcycling psychology for the moment).

Peart, (pictured) a brilliant lyricist and one of rock music’s most celebrated drummers, was also a motorcyclist, and it’s no exaggeration to say that a motorcycle trip saved Peart’s life. Twenty years ago, overwhelmed by grief after the deaths of both his daughter and wife within a year of each other, Peart locked up his home and hung up his drumsticks, telling his bandmates Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson that Rush were finished. He then loaded his BMW R1100GS with a few essentials including a journal, and rode away, not knowing (or indeed caring) if he would ever return.

Many months and 55,000 miles later, Peart returned home. His motorcycle rides in nature had led to an epiphany of sorts, which had given him a new reason to live. Peart’s motorcycling journal became a book, Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road, and Rush lived again, returning with a superb comeback album, Vapor Trails.

Maybe it was Peart’s experience that inspired me to get back on my motorcycle recently, after the following caused an extreme attack of motorcycle emptiness:

  1. New bike purchase at the end of the 2019 season; bike dropped on second ride out
  2. Bike away for weeks during lockdown getting lowered
  3. Vehicle movement restrictions due to COVID-19
  4. Busy life due to COVID-19
  5. No reason to ride?
  6. Other problems, which knocked my usual positive mental attitude.

I knew what I needed: to get out on the bike more. But this was 2020 when we had to save the NHS, so the last thing the NHS needed was a load of hooligan motorcyclists out enjoying the playground of empty roads. So I didn’t go out, but instead joined my local IAM RoadSmart group’s very helpful Zoom chat in May on the subject of getting out on one’s motorcycle for the first time in a while.

The next day, I went out for a little pootle and enjoyed it, but then the bike was put away again and the old problems resurfaced. Lack of hours in the saddle reducing the likelihood of me getting any hours in the saddle. A vicious circle.

I wonder if Mr Peart chose to ignore the ‘Y’ in his pre-ride ‘P-O-W-D-E-R-Y’  (or whatever mnemonic you wish to use) bike checks before he rode off on his epic journey – ‘Y’ representing the state of the rider, and whether they’re fit to press the start button. Let’s face it, Peart didn’t really care what happened to him on that ride. But for me, there was a big WHY? for my ‘Y’, which stopped me riding at all. However, if Peart could ride 55,000 miles after the trauma he went through, surely I could ride for a couple of hours? So yesterday, I did just that – which wasn’t enough, so I rode another hour or so, with a couple of breaks in between.

And what a natural high I got from those miles – not even 100 miles, but every one a joy, with my confidence rising as the number on the tacho grew.

Having the right state of mind and attitude is absolutely crucial when riding. Some may say that skill, training and experience are all key to good motorcycling, but the rider also needs to be in the right ‘place’ psychologically. Positive mental attitude, self-esteem and confidence are crucial.

Having said that, when you ride, you can’t sensibly think about much else, so the very act of riding  – a total mind-body-soul experience – takes the rider to a higher plane.  

And this reminds me of a conversation I had once with my brother and Visorcat inventor, Alan Boulton. When I talked about yoga and meditation he replied “motorcycling is my meditation” which of course it is, and is why I don’t like ‘rider aids’ much (see my blog on that subject).

Now, where did I put my copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig? Or perhaps I should dig out Motorcycle Roadcraft and re-read … or maybe I should just ride. I’m bound to leave my Motorcycle Emptiness behind.

R.I.P Neil Peart (1952-2020)

Picture credit: Michael Mosbach