Fresh asphalt chew marks scarred the once shiny chrome handlebar slider. The left turn signal had been pulled from its socket and was now blinking in the wrong direction. The shifter, while still functional, was forcefully contorted in to a “V” rather than its traditional “L” shape.
“Are you OK?”, I asked. She let out a sigh of frustration, pause, then a nod, and together we hoisted the BMW F800 GT to its feet. Two minutes later, I heard it crunch to the ground again.
6 Months ago she didn’t even know how to ride a motorcycle. 5 months ago she signed up for a Motorcycle Photography tour around central Italy. Her friends thought she was crazy, reckless, maybe just a bit too optimistic. They were probably right, and yet their doubt simply fueled her determination.
4 months ago she got her motorcycle license, then bought her first used bike – a classic 80’s machine with shiny chrome and a low-slung seat. Her legs were a little too long for the bike, but she didn’t know any better. She was in love. She started to embark on solo rides through the quiet canyons and hills of Colorado, and felt the immediate freedom and exhiliration of piloting your own motorcycle – along with the anxiety of the inherent risks.
Her new mentors taught her to “lean in” – a practical bit of advice, but also a poignant moto metaphor to, "Face Your Fears". 3 months later, she was on a plane to Italy – to ride.
The thick smell of oil & gasoline could not entirely mask the trepidation in the air as we inspected the rental bikes in the undergroundgarage, below the city of Roma. We would be boarding unfamiliar motorcycles, some larger and more powerful than we had ever ridden before, and launching ourselves directly in to the morning rush-hour traffic of one of the busiest cities in Europe. Romans are not known for being patient, nor particularly forgiving, drivers. The words, “Crash Course” came to mind, but I tactfully avoided using them aloud.
The riders were excitedly checking their gear and buckling their protection, adjusting mirrors and playing with buttons. but I noticed she was not smiling yet.
“Lean in”, she said quietly with a long breath – more as an affirmation to herself than a suggestion to anyone in particular.
The engines roared to life and the sweet sound of five large-bore BMWs and one Moto Guzzi, singing in unison, echoed off the garage walls. Kickstands up. The morning sun flared off our bug-free face shields as we emerged from the dark cave in to the bustling streets of Roma.
Breaking free of the city was nerve-wracking. Max, our Italian lead rider, forewarned us to stay together and “ride aggressively” – not exactly the “ride defensively” tactic that is drilled in to us during our first safety classes back home in the states. In Roma, you lane split or you are pushed to the side. You jockey for pole position at every stop light, then launch for the lead – less your rear tire becomes a black skid mark on the front bumper of an old Fiat. Vespa riders put you to shame, passing on your left, right, front, and back. We quickly learned that if we didn’t ride aggressively, we’d be trampled by the herd.
Within an hour we were out of the capital, and void of incident. We pulled to the side of the road – now finally starting to twist and turn its way in to the beautiful sunny hillside, and did a quick check-in. She was a bit shaky, but realized the hardest part was behind her, and let out a sigh of relief.
“That freaked me out, I’m not gonna lie”. Her voice had the slight vibrato of a nervous singer performing her first operetta.
We consoled each other with audible deep breaths and a round of the most genuine, and deserved, high-fives. The smiles came freely now, and we were on our way.
Over the course of the following week, we carved through some of the most beautiful countryside you could imagine. We visited tiny villas, medieval castles, and ate at intimate agriturismo restaurants nestled deep in the hills. We negotiated flowing S-curved roads that swept back and forth like smooth, grey rivers. We cautiously traversed shiny cobblestone roads in ancient villages, designed long before the advent of the rubber tire and more than one horsepower. The random gravel roads we encountered became the nemesis of the new riders. U-turns on gravel, their arch-rival. Yet, each new encounter with this “ancient asphalt” (as Max began to call it) fostered an increase in confidence among the riders. They soon realized that gravel equaled adventure, and inevitably led us to another smooth road less-travelled.
By the end of the week she had dropped her bike twice. And picked it up twice. She was not hurt, just more determined. She had ridden farther, faster, and on more challenging roads, then ever before. She had ridden before sunrise to watch its warmth illuminate a tiny village, and the perfect twisty road. She was beaming with confidence and a sense of accomplishment. This is what “leaning in” is all about and she was living it, and feeling more alive than ever.
I was privledged to witness all the riders on this trip overcome their own internal obstacles, fears, and hesitations – and to face them head on. Some worked through challenges on the motorcycle, some through personal baggage they carried for many years. They were noticeably stronger, bolder, and more confident by the end of the journey. I had not expected to see this, only to lead a motorcycle photography tour and binge on gourmet food.
Of course, I had my own fears before embarking on this journey. I was indirectly responsible for a group of riders on their first foray through some of the most challenging roads in Italy. No pressure, right?! Would the weather cooperate? Would we all have fun? Would I eat too much pasta and fall victim to a food coma while riding? Would one of us plummet off a cliff in an exploding ball of fire? Honestly, my biggest fear was that we would all come home un-changed. None the wiser, nothing to talk about.
As fate would have it, each of us had a tremendous opportunity to exercise our Lean In. I don’t believe that true growth can really happen without welcoming that which scares you with outstretched arms. We faced these medieval dragons and fought them, coming out the other side as braver, stronger humans.
On our last day, we had to descend from the beautiful rolling hills and re-enter the pulsing heart of Roma to return the bikes. This time we’d be going right through the core of the city, through denser post-work traffic, twice the distance of the day we exited the iconic landmark. Max, normally light-hearted and joking, delivered a stern warning: “Please, stay together and ride aggressively. Do not fall behind or you will be lost.”
We zigged and zagged, dodged and weaved, and put our bad-ass faces on. She rode up front this time, positioning herself with intention, and refused to let scooter guy muscle her out of the way. She was smooth and confident, aggressive, but not reckless, and I followed with quiet admiration. She was a different rider now – with an air of authority about her.
We worked our way back through the labyrinth of Roma to the underground garage, home of our borrowed bikes. Off the busy street and down the curving driveway we purred, tires squeaking on the concrete as we parked the tired beasts in their stalls.
She rolled to a stop, pulled off her helmet, and with a glowing smile exclaimed, “That wasn’t so bad!"
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