The motorcycle sits in a corner of our two-car garage, tucked snuggly between our pop-up camper and a compact car, looking as neglected as the lawnmower; as loved as the garden shovel. Only the LED glow of the Battery Tender signals that anyone gives a hooey whether it lives to see another season.
So begins the annual debate – when is the day the leathers go on, the cover comes off and the bike barks to life, announcing the return of yet another too-short summer. We are at the mercy of the thermometer, which – sensing our impatience – toys with our emotions by delivering a couple of warm days, followed by a heartbreaking dive back into a freeze.
At the local dealership, customers are back, buying polish, jugs of engine oil and chain lube, and eyeing the lineup of just-slightly-better two-wheeled temptations beckoning from the showroom. The service garage is busy fitting new chains and rubber.
I don’t take my bike to the shop. I’m the guy who got his first marriage off on the wrong foot by storing a broken engine in the kitchen of our high-rise apartment. Because that’s what real bikers do. As with many of my friends, the act of scrubbing and wrenching and fiddling with the machine until everything is just right is at the core of the motorcycling experience. When you’re working on a bike, it doesn’t feel like a cold collection of metal and plastic parts; it feels alive. Like a thoroughbred, the machine gets lovingly fondled by its owner – until you take it out to work up a sweat.
The first ride of the season is a bit like lifting the window-shade in the morning – a burst of light after a long period of darkness. There is a tentativeness to it all as you slowly remember the routine: the purr as the engine settles into a rhythm, the pressure-point on the clutch, the thunk as you drop into first gear. You check the road for gravel and debris, zip the jacket and snap it shut at the neck, punch your fingers into the gloves and flip down the face shield. And then, you edge back out into your alternate universe.
Driving a car is to motorcycling what CSIS is to James Bond. One is safe, sensible and too-often boring. The other is daring, dangerous and sexy. If there isn’t a little tingle of fear every time you swing your leg over the saddle, you’ve got no common sense. When you are at the controls of a machine that balances on two wheels, your fate is very much in your own hands.
When I am riding my motorcycle, I am a different kind of driver. In the car – lulled by the safety of two tonnes of steel, seat belts and airbags – I struggle to stay engaged, having to force myself not to look at the cellphone, to keep my eyes focused on the world outside my glass cocoon. On the motorcycle, I’m out in that world. The bugs and dirt sting my face; rain drops feel like pellets; I can reach out and touch the pedestrian at the crosswalk.
Senses go on hyperalert. I am aware of everything going on around me all the time – looking in the mirrors, checking over my shoulder, keeping a close eye on the tailgating driver behind me. Intersections are like chess games; I’m always trying to look several moves ahead, to spot the idiot before he can do me harm. Because my day – maybe even my life – depends on it.
Like it did for Al, a friend of a friend. He lost his leg, and his life-partner, a couple of years ago at an intersection in Naples, Fla., when he got T-boned at an intersection. Or Greg, another friend who lost control on a Rocky Mountain road and ended up in a wheelchair. Stories like that keep your senses sharp.
There are times when my wife comes on rides with me. It’s not as much fun, however, to be on the back as it is to hang onto the handlebars. Motorcycling is active; riding on the back is passive. Although you can chat via Bluetooth, it’s no way to have a casual conversation. Mostly the conversations are about where to turn and when to stop for a pee.
This is confirmed by a friend who says she much prefers to be at the controls than on the back.
“Initially, as a woman, I found it rather empowering. ‘Holy crap! I can really do this!'” Rebecca Chapman said. “And now I love it because I find it rather meditative in a way. It puts you very much in the moment.”
Meditative. In the moment. Those are exactly the words I would have chosen, too. Motorcycling is at its core a solitary activity. When you’re on a bike you’re in your own head, sorting things out, solving problems, making plans. In a sense, it’s as solitary as working with words.
There is something strangely organic about the experience of riding, especially alone. I’ve ridden some beautiful winding roads through places such as Nelson and Kamloops in B.C., Cape Breton’s Cabot Trail and California’s Angeles National Forest. There’s just nothing like it. Navigating a twisty road requires concentration, anticipation and agility. As you approach the curve, you calculate its radius and pick a gear. You decide whether the road is clean enough to lean the bike until its pegs scrape the pavement. You choose when to hit the brakes and when to crack the throttle. When you get it right, it’s like powered ballet.
Riding in packs is a different experience. Motorcyclists who ride together do socialize, with hand gestures and facial expressions. Sometimes, when no cars are around, they play salt-and-pepper, zooming past the pack and then dropping back.
Most of them are also meticulously safe. We maintain healthy distances from one another, stay at or below the speed limit and stagger lanes, so we have time to react to a problem that develops around us. When there is a rogue, the pack self-corrects, like they did one day a couple of years ago when a hungover friend recklessly ripped his Harley at 160 kilometres an hour down a road near B.C.’s Grey Wells Provincial Park. Our group shunned him like a college freshman.
People say that riding motorcycles is a young person’s game, and there’s some truth to that. As our bodies age and our joints stiffen, building up the gumption to get out there on a damp and frosty day gets a little bit harder each year. A lot of young riders, though, have short careers because they are victims of their own testosterone. They quit because they hurt themselves – or worse. The ones who are in it for the long haul are the ones who settle into a more respectful relationship, ruled by common sense and caution.
I’ve met some “million-milers” – pretty much all men, who have travelled a million miles or more over their lives. They are, to a person, quiet, insular people. Perhaps even introverts. As I look into their eyes, I am driven to ask what turns of fate have pushed them to log countless days facing asphalt and wind. The answer never really comes.
Other riders are just old – amazingly old. Like Jerry Kernan, a man from Saskatoon who, at the age of 90, would still go out for cruises on his Honda Goldwing touring bike until he finally lost his licence a few years back. And Glenn Turple, from Red Deer, a million-miler who was still going strong at 87. We bonded when I discovered that he – like me – started riding on the farm at the age of 14, just so he could get around. Unlike me, however, he rides his bike almost every day of the year, even in Alberta’s -30 cold.
I remember asking him what makes some people so driven to ride bikes. All he can offer is that there’s “something different” about this peculiar sect.
There is something different. Of this world, and another one, too. Going to the same places, seeing the same things as the rest of us. But through different eyes.
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” I think he was talking about people who love to ride motorcycles.
Doug Firby has been riding motorcycles since he was 14. He has never been seriously injured.