It’s me and ten other dudes. They’ve all got tattoos, which in and of itself makes them more qualified for this assignment. They’ve got better life stories for introductions and also seem to have the requisite level of testosterone needed to ride a motorcycle. “I’m Angelina. I like butter,” I nervously announce to the group. I’m about to watch a UFC fight for the first time in my life, but first I'm going to hop on a Harley when I shouldn’t even hop on a bicycle. I am the odd man out. I am nervous.
The last time I was on something with two wheels, it was a friend’s bike. I rode it for about a block on a New York City sidewalk before I hit the brakes too quickly and fell sideways. Now, here I am, after my boss sent me to do the Harley-Davidson Taste of Freedom Tour, to learn to ride a motorcycle over four weekends and write about it.
Everyone promises me we’ll do this in baby steps. This first weekend in Montreal is called Motorcycle Boot Camp, but it’s more about relaxing and having fun with just a teeny tiny introduction to actually riding. “The dealership in Montreal trains celebrities for movie roles,” a PR person tells me. “You’ll be fine.” But he has no idea what he’s dealing with. I feel like a hooker in bed, faking excitement and whoring myself out for a story. I get nervous chopping lettuce because I know I’m supposed to tear it, not cut it. I get nervous crossing the street when the light is flashing. I’ll even be nervous when I write this story.
“What are the activities?” I ask.
“We’re going to the UFC weigh-in and fight.”
This only adds to the stress. I have never seen a fight before, not in person or on TV. The unfamiliar makes anyone anxious.
We are split into two groups: “us” (me along with four other journalists and five people much cooler than journalists—a rapper, an MMA fighter, an illustrator, a skateboarder, and one of the founders of Instagram) and “them” (regular people who were just curious about riding). It’s about what you’d expect from a boot camp. People are teaching you basics about motorcycles and gear, while you nod and pretend to understand what they’re talking about. There is also free booze, so I do what I do best when I’m uncomfortable: I drink. After my second beer, I’ve completely ignored the fact that learning how to ride a motorcycle would take motor skills or awareness. I’m more concerned with trying on helmets and swooshing my hair out of them, like in the movies.
Wearing a full-face helmet is like wearing a mask. It’s like you’re on stage and you can pretend to be whoever you want to be. You can act or play a role. Remember the scene in Big Daddy when Adam Sandler gives the little kid magic invisible glasses so he can go into the classroom on his first day? That’s what this helmet was like.
I don’t have the magic glasses when I hop on the jump-start, a propped up motorcycle that you can shift into first, second, and third gear without actually going anywhere. Instead, I am surrounded by photographers and a crowd of people waiting to witness my awkwardness. The dealership crew adjust the seat, but the bike still feels too big for me, like a gaudy dress engulfing me. Like a good whore—excuse me, journalist—I go ahead and straddle it.
I crank the clutch with one hand, the gas with the other, and shift the bike into first gear. The bike is propped so I don’t move, but the speedometer does. Then I shift into second and I feel the seat vibrating. By the time I get up to 50 mph, I think, I would be flying right now. The smell of gasoline makes me want a cigarette. Or another beer. Or both. I can feel my senses react to this bike. As awkward as it may have been, I kind of let go and enjoyed it. A lot.
When it’s all over, my relaxation dissipates. Part of me wants to hop on again, lest I forget what I just learned. Another part of me remembers that we were heading to a UFC fight the next day. Motorcycles, of course, are badass, and what’s more badass than beating the blood out of a man’s brain in a cage while thousands of fans drunkenly cheer you on?
If you’ve never seen a UFC fight before, it’s actually a series of fights leading up to the main event. The first fight of the night is boring. Two men dance around each other, barely touching let alone fighting. It was like I was in first gear, slightly buzzed from beer and just getting the hang of things. The second fight starts the same way then got more intense as I get a tad drunker. It ends with one of the fighters on top of the other one, pounding on the other fighter’s head while blood splashes and gushes everywhere. The crowd around us cheers while my jaw drops and my hand covers my mouth. Why isn’t anyone stopping this? The guy is down, he’s not moving, the fight should end, and why are people cheering?
I feel myself taking on the fighter’s pain. Maybe I’m delusional but I’m not the only one. Everyone around me is uncomfortable. But then something amazing happens. I ease into my chair and start to enjoy the fight. Maybe it’s the crowd, maybe it’s the booze, or maybe it’s all the male pheromones floating in the air, but by the main event, I am cheering at the sight of more blood. I observe the crowd around me, I am the crowd.
Then, it hit me, just like hopping on a motorcycle that feels too big or hanging in a group where I didn’t exactly fit, all it takes to adjust your awkwardness is to activate a few of your basic instincts. From the smell of gasoline to the smell of blood—I, for better or for worse, changed my body chemistry.