Riding With Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books

by Ted Bishop

Viking 2005  261 pp. $24.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


The opening sentence of Ted Bishop’s witty, entertaining and thought-provoking memoir on motorcycles and books isn’t liable to provoke a chuckle: “I’m riding the crest of my last morphine shot, lying here in the trauma ward.”  Yet, the story of his horrific crash on a rain-slick mountain road in Alberta merely bookends a larger story, that of his external trip from Edmonton to Austin and back, and an interior one that glides through the literary movement known as modernism, casting an acute eye on motorcycles wherever it finds them.

Bishop, a scholar and long time Beemer rider, found his bike entirely adequate for rides around Edmonton.  Yet, he abandoned the clockwork dependability of BMW for the siren call of Desmodromic: “the very word was like a charm.”  In a hilariously rendered scene, we see Bishop lamely attempting to bargain with a dealer for a Ducati Monster and, after an hour of skillful negotiating, he manages to pay full retail for the object of his lust.  “But that’s okay.  I would have paid more.”

He needed the bike, needed it, you understand, to ride down to Austin, whose university houses the largest collection of English-language modernist manuscripts in the world. 

Avoiding freeways and chain restaurants, Bishop found that the romance of the road was sometimes absent, as in Tremonton, Utah, where “the room had more cigarette burns than TV channels.”  A self-deprecating fellow, he knows he’s not a Biker, but doesn’t mind sowing a little confusion.   “We reject it, we deny it, we explain at length that there is a difference between a Rider and a Biker, but we secretly relish it.  We like the idea that we’re mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”

The Duc makes it all the 3,800 miles down to Austin, an achievement considering that Bishop is no mechanic: “Ted and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance would be a short book.” Reveling in his ability to adjust the chain—two bolts!  Dirty hands!—he manages to overtighten it enough times for it to require an expensive replacement in Austin.

Along the way, readers will be entertained with stories of Lady Brett, George Bernard Shaw’s wife, who bought T. E. Lawrence the bike that he was killed on, Virginia Woolf’s unconsummated desire for a motorcycle, and George Orwell, another keen motorcyclist.  Riding With Rilke is available through amazon.com for twenty-four bucks.            Bishop’s accident, brought about by a combination of speed, wind, and bad front bearings, was a tale of uncanny luck.  He was followed in a car by his girlfriend Hsing, an emergency room physician.  “The people who stopped after Hsing were an internal medicine specialist and his wife, an intensive care nurse.  The guy in the car after that was an ambulance driver.  Clearly it had not been my day to die.”

After extensive rehabilitation, Bishop recovered.  Will he ride again?

I think we all know the answer to that question.