Propulsive story of the mythologized, misunderstood universe of motorcycling.
Johnson (White Heat, 2007, etc.) balances his nerdy-gearhead side with precise, vivid prose and a clear understanding of his subject’s history and technology. The author views the motorcycle as several things—fascinating narrative of technical advancement within an unforgiving marketplace, an eternal social metaphor and the most physically exhilarating experience available. He begins with an intimate discussion of the mythic “open road” (“the landscape writes itself on your body, mile after mile”), reflecting his devotion to his lifelong obsession. Involved with motorcycles for 40 years, he grew up riding, starting with the smallest cycles available to a risk-entranced child, and has ridden nearly every kind of bike: high-end Italian Ducatis, off-road bikes, a Japanese touring cycle and various obscure, much–sought-after British bikes. Johnson ties broad personal experience to countless aspects of the topic, including valuable pointers on how to behave around “one-percenters,” outlaw bikers. He establishes expertise with a highly detailed history of the motorcycle’s development, which began nearly 150 years ago, and became popular enough in the early 20th century so that in the United States and Britain “manufacturers sprang up everywhere”—most of which were slain during the ’70s by the Japanese Big Four (Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Suzuki). Johnson argues that innovation has always been propelled by daredevils and eccentrics on the far edge of racing and high-risk riding, leading to no shortage of competitive shenanigans. The author seems addicted to competition and speed himself, covering the insular worlds of “flat-track” (cement) racing, motocross (dirt racing), hill scrambles (crazily risky and incongruously family-friendly), world prestige races like the Isle of Man TT and the Dakar Rally, and the world-record cult that revolves around the Bonneville Salt Flats. Johnson captures the obsessive excitement of motorcycle culture with enough verve to make nonriders understand, and jealous, although he doesn’t undersell its dangers.
Enjoyable and informative—one of the best books on the topic in years.