Motorcycle Smells

Motorcycle Smells

Of the five primary senses, smell enjoys a privileged connection with the brain, capable of drawing up memories with unnerving clarity. Marcel Proust, the esteemed French stream-of-consciousness writer, once commented that it was “by taste and smell alone” that the memories of his childhood came rushing back. His novel, In Search of Lost Time, is a testament to the olfactory system’s power.

Despite humans’ sense of smell being somewhat pitiful when compared to most animals, it is still acute and can transform odors into what science calls involuntary recall. We’ve all had those experiences where just the mere hint of a smell rouses a memory with stunning lucidity.

Over the past few years, I have become increasingly aware of these predominantly pleasant smell-triggered recollections. They strike at the oddest moments and instantly take me to some wonderful time and place from my two-wheeled past. Recently, I was hiking through eucalyptus trees and was transported back to my first motorcycle experience (I learned to ride in a small canyon lined with eucalyptus trees). I even recalled the sound of my Honda Trail 70’s puttering little engine and the clang of pebbles hitting the front fender.

The most prevalent smells associated with motorcycling are gasoline and exhaust fumes. Most gearheads have a fondness for the sharp sting of gasoline and the lingering odor of burnt exhaust. But if pump gas is a base memory inducer among motorcyclists, race fuel is the premium toke. To this day, when I attend a race, it’s not until I get my first good whiff of race fuel that I feel settled.

However, concerning the smell of exhaust, without a question the most powerful aroma in the motorcycle canon is burnt pre-mix. As two-strokes go the way of the dinosaurs, new generations of motorcycle enthusiasts will be denied this most entrancing of scents. Whenever an ill-tuned moped sweeps past, leaving behind a pale cloud of exhaust, I go back to race tracks populated by hundreds of ringing two-strokes.

Garages housing motorcycles are also an olfactory treasure trove—Simple Green, contact cleaner, and motor oil. WD-40 is one of the most powerful olfactory sensations for me, conjuring memories of late nights rebuilding motors and performing general maintenance. In my teenage years, I was obsessed with motocross and next to duct tape, nothing was as ubiquitous as WD-40.

However, it’s possible to go much further with smells and delve into less obvious, perhaps more personal associations with riding. I’ve done enough riding in all four seasons through various locations that I’ve cataloged a slew of smells associated with the atmosphere. Seasonal changes induce their specific memories. Spring tends to conjure images of warm weather rides and travel. Summer recalls track days. Fall has the pleasant smell of foliage. Finally, winter holds the scent of wet pavement.

Track days have smells all of their own. Perhaps the strangest is the smell of melting plastic created by riders grinding down their knee pucks at speed against the pavement. It’s a horrid odor but I associate it with adrenaline-drenched memories.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t include the sensory overload associated with new stuff. All motorcycle shops seem to have that same smell—as if they all buy their air freshener from the same supplier. I was in a shop recently and was instantly swept back to my teens by the showroom’s odor. How about the smell of buying your first new motorcycle? I got a whiff of packing grease and was once again 16, buying my first brand-new bike.

Smells take us back to sublime moments from our past with uncanny lucidity. In my case, the majority of these recollections are intertwined with motorcycles. The smells of bikes evoke deep emotions and pleasant memories that allow me to truly appreciate an ideal adolescence, which in no small way I owe to motorcycles.