Months into my first real job, I bought a motorcycle – a 2001 Suzuki GS500. Just a few weeks before I’d done the rider safety course and received my M2, and followed it up by devouring every ‘how to buy a motorcycle’ guide I could find on the internet.
The course was a lot of fun. From a shipping container in a university parking lot a stable of motorcycles emerged, some cruiser style, some sport style, some standards, and a handful of dual-sports. All were 200 cc and under. I tried the sport and and standard and liked the standard the best since it seemed most suited for my lanky frame. Somewhat surprisingly for someone who traditionally lacks hand-eye talent, using each limb to do something different toward the control of a motor vehicle wasn’t all that bad, and I had scores to prove it. At the end of the class we were allowed to simply ride continuously around the test course, which was amazing fun.
Still, when I bought the bike, I had the seller deliver it to me just in case.
That fall and the following summer I made excursions to Gatineau Park and all around the Outaouais. A few times I rode it to work, but usually I got up too late and felt too lazy to gear up. I didn’t ride it as much as I should have to build confidence and in truth I was a little nervous around it. It was nerve-wracking to get it out from behind my car in my tiny parking spot, the carburetion was a little weird, and I don’t think I ever got over the ‘biking is dangerous’ thing.
I sold it two years later and went one summer without a bike. But there’s always an itch. That summer everytime I saw someone go by on a bike I had to follow it with my eyes.
“Every time you see someone on a bike” I told one of my friends, “you know that person is having the time of their lives.”
Even the industry was calling me back. Kawasaki, the long-dominant player in beginner bikes, published a revised Ninja 250 with fresh plastics. Honda entered the fray with the CBR250R, an injected, lightweight, good looking, 250 single. At around 330 lbs wet it was easy to move around my parking spot, easy to ride, and I never had to worry about the choke or the carburetion. It looked hot. I also spent $800 getting a proper Alpinestars high-viz jacket, overpants, back protector, and boots. Even with all that gear sometimes it still felt weird sometimes to sit on a motor vehicle and not be otherwise attached but for your butt and two hands. No seatbelt.
I rode to work almost every day and loved it. Biking is much more… elegant than driving. Drivers haul around 3300 lbs of steel to get from Point A to B. I did the same with 10% of the weight. (Admittedly most of that is to protect drivers from themselves and others.) Yet I can’t help but wonder how nice it would be if everyone just rode. We’d save tons of gas and parking. Tragedy of the commons I guess.
Riding every day I got over a lot of the nervousness. I loved countersteering. Kids waved at me from cars. I even had special indoor bike parking at work. Life was good. I rode all day for two days and got my full M licence. One day, near a local airport I permitted myself a fist pump as I rode by a small Cessna on short final for landing.
That summer my brother and I also split the cost of a Moto Guzzi V7. It had about twice the power of my 250 (Still not a lot – my brother called it slow) but it was very stylish, and very Italian. With the cylinder fins poking into the wind and sculpted tank it projected strength like a hunk of carved marble. The thumping V-twin generated all sort of interesting torque effects. It was a machine with classic Italian character. Sure enough my brother also spent hours cursing its strange approach to maintainability.
I sold the CBR this year because I’m moving, but I’m not sure I’ll get another bike, even though the CBR500R, and a further (big) step up, the Interceptor, are really nice bikes. One reason is space, I don’t really have a place to put a bike. Secondly, I’m not as comfortable riding on arterial suburban roads. There are the roads three lanes wide that have 60 km / h limits but can and do accommodate 70 – 80 km / h traffic. I think it’s too much to ride a bike on safely, too much going on too fast. In a way tight downtown city streets are almost safer because speeds are lower and people are paying more attention.
To scratch the itch I will probably look at track riding and dirt riding. No cars there, and I would mostly have myself to blame for any accidents. Looking through bends while (slightly) leaned over, anticipating the next corner, and the rush of acceleration on the straight was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had.
Still, some experiences you can only have on the street.
Although darkness obscures your view of road hazards, usually there’s fewer cars around. I remember cruising city streets at night with the streetlights gliding overhead. At one stop light it was just me, the glow from apartment windows, the motor underneath, and some other denizens of the evening on the street. In a car you’re in your own space, cocooned. On my bike, I was part of it all.
At speed, night riding almost feels like dreamy space travel. On a dimly lit river parkway all I could see were the curbs outlining my path, taillights far ahead of my, and flying insects streaking by, lit up by my headlight.
Riding in the rain was also quite memorable. With reduced visibility everything was on a calm high alert. I tried to be extra smooth. The rain obscured my vision a bit which rendered street and taillights in an impressionistic blur. There was an odd parallel between how the rain smoothed out objects in my vision, and how I was trying to ride smoothly. Because I was in stop and go traffic I got a better view by keeping my visor up, which acted as a sort of awning over my face. And although I would always avoid rain riding if I could, having actually done it felt like a rite of passage.
Well I only dropped my bike twice, both times standing still. One time I had simply ridden for too long and I lost my balance while stopped at a light. Another time I parked on a hill which turned out to be the wrong angle for the kickstand.
Standard advice given by instructors is to ride like you’re invisible and assume people are trying to kill you. Lucky for me this happened pretty rarely. Both times it really was like I was invisible as people tried to merge into my lane. Both times I got out of the way and laid on my horn.
Once I drifted out of my lane on a country road. This was before I really got the hang of countersteering (Push on the right handlebar to turn right)
Another time I followed a country road only to find out that the asphalt turned to gravel. I rode through it gingerly though I now know that riding on smooth small gravel is well within a capabilities of a street bike. It was a bit of surprise though for someone with less than 500 km of experience.
Is it possible to ride safely? There’s tons of advice out there, including:
- Wear a helmet
- Wear a motorcycle jacket, pants, boots, and gloves
- Don’t drink
- Ride during the day
- Wear high viz clothing
- Ride a motorbike you can handle
- Don’t speed
- Ride a bike with ABS
- Ride responsibly
- Keep learning
To the list I’d add
- Wear an airbag vest
- Study your road conditions. A leisurely country ride (Good sightlines, little traffic) is likely to be safer than car heavy fast-moving suburban arteries.
Maybe one day I’ll get into long-distance bike touring. Touring bikes have bags so look bigger (Easier to see) and a typical tour follows little-traveled country roads.