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My First Motorcycle: The Honda Hawk GT

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You never get over your first motorcycle. I still love my little Honda Hawk GT.

It was introduced to the market a quarter century ago this year. I am riding it around even now. I've never been much for milestones. But about half my lifetime to date: that offers an invitation to reflect.

I thought I was buying a beginner bike back in the day. I have learned so much from this pastime of motorcycling since then.

My next-door neighbor had had a motorcycle when I was a kid growing up on the outskirts of Detroit. Of course I wanted one too. My parents refused to give in.

In retrospect, I realize that they were right about this decision as they were on many matters -- turns out money doesn't grow on trees. They did get me a used 4-1/2 horsepower minibike as a consolation prize. I learned to pilot a two-wheeled motor vehicle by zipping through the nearby cornfields beyond where the subdivisions ended.

As soon as I was an independent adult with an income, I engaged in intensive study to figure out what would be the best real motorcycle to learn on. I suppose it confirms my ultimate nerdiness that I sat in the basement of the public library, reading issue after back issue of enthusiast magazines, while dreaming about touring the country roads as Robert Pirsig had romanticized. My head was full of theoretical knowledge about engine configuration, the difference between horsepower and torque, and the relative merits of a rigid versus flexible chassis. I took a safety course that involved watching didactic movies that were probably more instructional than anyone gives them credit for and then doing figure eights in a parking lot (not easy, by the way). I never take off without a helmet, boots, and gloves.

The Hawk GT was so different from anything else being offered those days. I knew it was the one for me as soon as I saw it.

Often called a "cult classic," it never sold well in the United States. The naked V-Twin displacing 647 cubic centimeters was underpowered compared to its four-cylinder brethren. It wasn't cheap either, priced above other entry-level models and just shy of the 600 cc sport bikes with wild decals on their fairings.

But boasting an aluminum twin-spar frame, a trick single-sided rear-swingarm, and a devoted community offering various mods to up performance, the design looks modern even a generation later. It came in blue and silver the first year, red for the rest of its production run.

I am an experienced rider now despite a hiatus of a decade. I've logged about 27,500 miles on that bike, 12,500 on others. My wife has even allowed me to buy another motorcycle. The other bike is bigger, fancier, and faster in a straight line.

Yet I prefer the Hawk. Light, solid, and reliable, it is the perfect transportation in my new home of San Francisco. Even though it's easy enough to ride, it also helps develop expertise - thanks to its balanced handling, it rewards improvements in technique.

To travel across the continent at a leisurely pace, every American should do once in a lifetime. From the sturdy bulk of Chicago to the natural glory of the Grand Canyon, and every point east of the former and west of the latter, there are sights and peoples that reveal the multiplicity of the population bound together by the promise of the land. Surrounded by the density of the East Coast, staying ahead of a Midwestern thunderstorm, feeling the solitude of the stars on the plains, sunrise over Southern California, are moments that must be experienced directly if they are to be understood at all. In car, it is too insulated to say you were there at all. I smell the weather, and I realize why dogs demand to stick their heads out the window.

When you ride, you join a community. Even if you are out there by yourself, you have friends. They offer the ephemeral wave, a cool downward gesture from the handlebars, passing on the two-lane highway, or the more fugitive head nod, barely discernible as a signal of solidarity. "You meet the nicest people on a Honda," was their advertising slogan as they were trying to appeal to the American consumer not too long after war, when Japanese products were assumed to be inferior.

I recently had a great independent shop, Werkstatt, install a Two Brothers Racing exhaust system. They started making them again after a long break, coming back to the model that made them a respected aftermarket manufacturer. With the carbon fiber pipe, the Hawk is noticeably quicker, sounds throatier, and looks terrific. I also had it painted British Racing Green. It represents the contemporary version of the cafe racers that set records at the Isle of Man.

I am a better person when I ride. The activity forces me to focus, calm down, and be as smooth as possible. You can't be distracted, angry, or reckless, if you want to be on the road for long. I've learned to be attentive to drivers and forgiving of them when they cut me off as they invariably do.

Leadership is about working well with others and assessing risks at all times. The ordinary traffic that threatens my life while en route to the job are exactly the preparation needed for the stresses of the office.

There's no better commute to work for me, than with my motorcycle gear over a business suit. And the route home takes me from the sunnier part of the city by the bay, right into the enveloping fog and over Twin Peaks.

I'm lucky that my first bike remains my regular ride.