I have done it. I descended into the underworld, I crawled through a river of shit, I strangled a storm and defied the gods themselves, but I have done it: I have purchased a motorcycle.
The greatest motorcycle ever made. The most beautiful and relentless steed imaginable. The 2003 Honda Nighthawk 750.
“What?” You sputter. “He’s talking about the Nighthawk? The Toyota Camry of motorcycles? The motorcycle whose most notable trait is that it is, indeed, a motorcycle? If you plotted every motorcycle on a graph and found the mean, it would be the Nighthawk — he’s talking about that bike?”
Yes, I say to you. Yes! If you’ve followed my struggle in finding the right bike, I know how this must seem: Like I went to a Chinese restaurant, carefully pondered all of the exotic options and house specialties, and then proudly declared “I’ll have the cheeseburger!”
But let me tell you something about the Nighthawk:
It does not let you down.
Parents, careers, life, humanity, escalators — all of these things will let you down. The Nighthawk is not one of them.
The Nighthawk does not have awe-inspiring power. But it does have solid horsepower, sufficient torque, and smooth, even delivery. It does not have balletic handling. But it ducks into corners with ease and keeps nice, steady lines. It doesn’t devour highway miles while wrapping you in a blissful cocoon of comfort. But it does handle sustained highway travel just fine, and it keeps you in a nice, neutral position. Brakes? Boy howdy, does it have them. It has two, actually. Even comes with calipers.
It doesn’t still your heart to look at the Nighthawk; the bike doesn’t catch the lustful gazes of other motorcyclists. Tell you people you ride a Nighthawk and you’ll get the ‘all right’ face: Inner eyebrows raised, lips set and turned down as if to say ‘huh. Good move.’ Not ‘great move.’ No exclamation point. Don’t get crazy.
It is the same face you’d get if, come December, your friends asked you to go Christmas shopping and you said “oh, I already got it done.”
Huh. All right. Good move.
Here’s why the Nighthawk excites me: They made the exact same bike, damn near unchanged, for twelve straight years. Reliability and ease of maintenance are off the charts, and parts are so ubiquitous that they’re practically free. That weird metal thing you found in the crawlspace, now sitting in your miscellaneous drawer? It’s a Nighthawk sprocket. You’ve tripped over a Nighthawk engine cover while running for your bus, you just didn’t know it. Look down right now. No, move your foot: You’re standing on a Nighthawk shim.
I can always find parts for this bike without breaking the bank, and that means I can make it look or perform however I want. I’m excited about that prospect: That was my favorite part about owning the 2012 Triumph Bonneville: Ripping their lovely creation to pieces and building my own hideous monster. Except with the Bonneville, doing so cost me a small fortune. With the Nighthawk, I can just go digging through my neighbor’s recycling and find all the parts I need.
And yet, for all that excitement about customization, I have no plans to change the bike in the immediate future. The one I bought came with a small smoke flyscreen and luggage rack. Those, I have sensibly installed. And that’s it.
Maybe someday I’ll get jaded and turn to perversion like a middle-aged couple trying to save their marriage — I’ll strip her naked in public; plug all sorts of strange parts into her; make her dress up like a flat tracker and call me Bullitt — but for right now, I’m convinced she’s just fine the way she is. And I’ll tell you why:
We have been through hell together.
I picked the Nighthawk up in Seattle, a three hour drive from Portland. I carefully checked all the weather reports, right up until the morning I left. Clear and oddly sunny, statewide. Possibility of a light shower in the evening, lasting no more than an hour. That’s fine: I should be home long before then, anyway.
I am now a fair weather rider. I live in the Pacific Northwest. I have pretended at the rain game, and you know what? It’s a terrible game, and I just plain don’t wanna. I have sold all of my waterproof gear. I don’t even own cold weather stuff anymore. If it’s below sixty and wet, I put on my helmet and ride my office chair around the kitchen making engine noises. After double and triple checking the weather maps, I grabbed my ventilated leather jacket and gloves, my air-mesh kevlar long johns (worn with knee and shin guards under a normal pair of jeans), my summer riding shoes, and my helmet, complete with tinted visor. Gotta be prepared for that sun!
The Seattle sky was clear when I arrived. I picked up the Nighthawk and went to exit the guy’s underground parking garage, only to find that Thor’s girlfriend had apparently just broken up with him, and he was now drunkenly taking it out on the entire state of Washington. Catastrophic downpour.
I checked the weather again. That morning it said: “Whoa, weirdly sunny! Can you believe it?” Now, it said: “OH FUCK BUILD AN ARK YOU GATHER CHICKENS I’LL GET SOME SQUIRRELS SANDRA YOU’RE ON OSTRICH DUTY-”
No choice for it, though. I loaded up the weather page on my phone and spat on the screen a few times, just for spite, then left. I immediately hit bumper to bumper traffic on the highway that lasted for a solid hour. Remember: My gear isn’t waterproof — in fact, it’s downright thirsty. If I had been miraculously teleported to Senegal ten minutes into my ride, the locals would’ve hailed me as a god and drank from my leather jacket until they died from water intoxication.
Two hours in, I stopped at a Shari’s to try to warm up for a few minutes: I stripped down in a bathroom stall and wrung my clothes out into the toilet. I tipped my shoes and poured out a full cup of gray, standing water. From the sound alone, the guy next to me must have presumed I was dying from dysentery, or had foolishly ordered the seafood stew.
Back on the highway. I use the term loosely. I-5 is the bad side of town where cars don’t go. That’s trucker territory, you fool: They cut sedans in the face just for kicks over there. And motorcycles? Jesus. That’s like unicycling into Mosul wearing nothing but a stars-and-stripes thong.
Every truck that passed me kicked up a fun-size tsunami. Ever stood at a crosswalk and been splashed by a car driving through a puddle? That car was going 25, and it had four wheels. The trucks were doing 90 and had eighteen god damn wheels, each of which hated me more than the last.
Wait, why was I letting them pass me? Why didn’t I just speed up? Because I was already surfing unsteadily on the tiny rivers formed by Washington’s terrible highways — hydroplaning in a mad and unending skid, wiping the water from my stupidly tinted visor with gloves so waterlogged that they squirted jets out the vent-holes whenever I made a fist. I was doing 70 — the speed limit — and that was already insane. Truckers have training, experience, large, capable, dry vehicles, a place to be, and enough speed in their system to down a rhino. They can do 90 in those conditions. I can’t.
The three hour drive took six of the most uncomfortable hours of my life. I went crazy partway through. It was so bad it became funny. I started singing, loudly and off-key, just to hear something else besides my own teeth chattering.
“EVEN RODE MY MOTORCYCLE IN THE RAIN!” I scream, pointing at the gawking family in the station wagon. “AND YOU TOLD ME NOT TO DRIVE, BUT I MADE IT HOME ALIVE. SO YOU SAID THAT ONLY PROVES THAT I’M INSANE. YOU MAY BE RIGHT. I MAY BE CRAZY. BUT I JUST MAY BE THE LUUUUNATIC YOU’RE LOOKING FOR-”
A monumental gout of water from a forty ton land-train piloted by a man named Big Bobby who hasn’t slept in six days, and whose blood is equal parts truck stop crank and Slim Jims, sends me wobbling.
I laugh, smear the black water around my visor until I clear a tiny portal of visibility, and start up again.
“WELL I BEEN THROUGH THE DESERT ON A HORSE WITH NO NAME IT FELT GOOD TO GET OUT OF THE RAIN IN THE DESERT-”
When I finally made it home, every muscle in my body was cramped from the cold. Every piece of gear was sealed to my skin like a licked envelope. I weighed three times more than I had, when I first set off. My wife kindly skinned the gear off of me, I sat in the hottest shower possible — knob cranked left until it hit stop — and drank bourbon out of a wine glass. Careful not to let the shower water get in it. I take my bourbon neat.
And the Nighthawk got me through that. It never sputtered, surged, or stalled. It gave me all the power I wanted, whenever I wanted it. It started up every time, no matter how much I secretly prayed it wouldn’t, so I’d have an excuse to get a motel room. It stayed stable in turns, no highway death wobbles — even on the Washington stretch of I-5, which could death wobble an elephant on a clear day — and altogether performed like Morgan Freeman in a Michael Bay movie: The only solid point in an otherwise ridiculous ordeal.
Adversity builds character. Me and the Nighthawk are violently spewing character from every orifice right now.
If you want to love a new bike — truly and dearly love it — do what I did for my first ride: Wait for a tropical storm, don all of your summer gear, then challenge an entire highway to a game of chicken for six straight hours. If you make it out alive, you’ll be bonded forever. You’ll be war buddies, sharing the kind of solidarity only soldiers can know, but can never explain.
Or you’ll hate the damn thing like it killed your dog and made your cat watch.
It’s a toss up.
And now, the pain review: You don’t need to read this part unless you sat on a prized canary and its gypsy owner cursed your assbone. I have coccydynia — undiagnosable tailbone pain — and it made riding my old bike impossible.
I did all of my research. I carefully evaluated what, exactly, aggravates the tailbone pain. I even rented a few bikes to test and refine these theories. I went and sat on even more, back to the research, and finally figured that the latest generation Nighthawk was, ergonomically, the best bet for me. Taller bikes with flatter seats were an option — the Triumph Scrambler was the ideal, with most vintage UJMs also fitting the bill — but either I’d have to spend a small fortune for a new bike, or every weekend swearing at seized bolts for an ancient one. I didn’t want to do either. Of the newer, more reliable and affordable options that I thought I could ride comfortably, the Nighthawk was the best.
And I was right!
My ride on the Nighthawk was six straight hours of misery, and every muscle in my body hurts from clenching against the cold. But the tailbone pain didn’t become agony until maybe four or five hours in, and it has settled back to normal (well, what passes for it) after only a night’s rest. This is with the stock seat, as well — and I’ll definitely be modifying it. Like I stressed earlier, Nighthawk parts are everywhere: I found a spare seat for thirty bucks on eBay, after maybe two minutes of searching. If you’re struggling with the same issue and got here by googling ‘why does my butt hate motorcycles,’ give something like the Nighthawk a shot. It doesn’t have to be the same bike, but I found that flatter seats, slight forward lean (reclining is awful, even straight up is bad, and surprisingly, too far forward is also agony), and a hip/knee angle of more than 80 degrees was the magical formula. I used to own a Street Triple, and the significant forward lean combined with relatively cramped leg angles seems like it would minimize impact on the tailbone, but it actually stretches the nerve somehow, making the pain worse. If you’re searching, you can compare those exact ergonomics against most other bikes at cycle-ergo, a hell of a site that pretty much saved my riding life. I always found their info spot on, and it was vital in figuring this problem out.
And now, for more shower bourbon. I call it a “Kentucky Spa Day.”