Saturday, January 29, 2011

Karl the biker

In 1980, mere months after I joined the military, I had a bit of disposable income for the first time in my life. The salary wasn't much in the beginning, but my living expenses were practically non-existent thanks to the military putting a very low cost roof over my head (barracks) and feeding me 3 squares a day at a discount (mess hall). My free time was spent testing the tolerance of bar staff for a few months, until I woke up (much sooner than most of my mates) realizing that there had to be a life outside of the military (drinking) mess.

So on a sunny spring day in 1980, convinced that my freedom hinged on having my own mode of transportation, I made my way to the local Honda Motorcycle dealership in Kingston Ontario and made what is truly the most wise and frugal investment in my life. I bought a used red 1978 Honda 185cc Twinstar for a mere $1100. Most of my peers who were buying motorbikes went for 400cc, 750cc, 1000cc bikes, but I felt that it was more reasonable to get something small to get the hang of riding a motorbike. It was a wise decision. I lost count of the number of guys who bought monster crotch rockets and wrote them off within days or weeks of ownership. Sometimes the write-off wasn't limited to the bike, rest their soul.

But a 185cc bike will get you from point A to point B, albeit without fanfare. The cost of gas was something like $2 per fill-up. I tried riding the thing from Kingston to my home town north of Montreal (a 296km trip) for a weekend visit, but this little bike couldn't really go fast enough to cruise safely at highway speeds, so I ended up meandering along on secondary highways at 90km/h (56mph). I seem to recall that I only attempted that trip once. That was the summer I learned about bug swarms, what it's like to ride on rough roads and why a 185cc bike isn't really suitable for passengers.

I was also introduced to the phenomenon of the wave. Folks who don't ride motorcycles probably don't know about this. Motorcycle riders wave to each other as they pass in the opposite direction. It can be a subtle thing - a simple raise of a few fingers or nod of the head in some cases - there are many variations. It gives us a sense of community and always puts a smile on my face. It means we're brothers and sisters on the road. When riders wave, it not only says "ain't this cool?", but also "I've got your back." We also used the index finger held upright next to the helmet and moved in a horizontal circular motion to mimic the spinning or flashing lights of a police vehicle to indicate that the police are ahead. A flat hand palm down moved with a downward pushing motion is used to convey the need to slow down due to poor road surface, an accident or obstruction ahead, or just that the rider felt you were travelling too fast for the conditions.

What was great about owning a motorcycle is that I now had a means to get around (not all of my peers could afford their own vehicle). This was my very first vehicle and it allowed me to explore the area around Kingston in a way that others could only dream of. Owning a motorbike also motivated me to take it easy on the drinking so that I would be sober enough to ride home. In fact, I became as close to a teetotaller as you can get while still drinking somewhat thanks to my transportation choice. I got used to the Twinstar very fast and by the end of the 1980 riding season was ready to move up in size.

In the spring of 1981, I traded my Twinstar for a 1979 Honda CM400T. They gave me $1000 toward the $2000 bike, which means that first machine cost me a grand total of $100 (plus gas) to learn how to ride a motorbike for a full season. You can't beat that. The 400cc bike had hard case storage saddles and a humongous wind screen so it looked a bit on the dorky side (IMHO). But this bike had the power required to do highway speeds safely, which opened up my frontier in a big way. This made getting home (to Montreal) a lot easier and faster. It also increased my eligibility quotient. Suddenly, girls from the military base were asking for rides on my bike on the weekends. Who was I to say no? This was a fantastic way to meet women. I could say that it was no big deal to have a girl riding on the seat behind you with her arms wrapped around you. But I'd be a big liar. I had a fleeting relationship with a car during this time - let's face it, you can't ride a bike in the winter. But the car was a blip on the radar - I didn't keep it long. One thing that owning the car did to liven up my bike-riding experience was the addition of music. Once you get used to the idea of listening to music while you drive, you miss it when you get back on a bike. My bike wasn't one of those huge Gold Wing monsters with their built-in stereo systems, so I had to compromise with the resources at hand. I already had a nice little ghetto blaster that I liked to bring with me wherever I went, so I just tied the thing to the back seat with bungee-cords. I had a nice set of headphones that you could detach from the headband, so I slipped the ear cups into my helmet and plugged them into the ghetto blaster for music on the go, especially for long highway trips. Totally illegal - but hey - we do what we gotta do. I kept that 400cc bike for 3 seasons before I decided I was ready for the next size up.

In 1984, I bought my first new motorcycle, a gorgeous black 1984 Honda V45 Magna (750cc) for $4000. This bike had shaft drive. What a difference! No more chains to worry about and the power curve was so smooth. A fill-up still only cost about $5. Those were the days. The Magna was a stylish bike. It had guts too. Now bike riding wasn't just practical, it was downright fun. I kept that bike until 1989, when I got sent off to Alert and knew I would be coming home to a brand new car (and a brand new wife). That ended my motorcycle career. I did buy a scooter for Darlene back in 2006, but she didn't really like it. So I kept that and rode it occasionally to work for two summers before selling it. What I'm looking forward to in the future is a good electric motorcycle with a 100km+ range for commuting, that I can charge overnight at home. The purists might scoff, but electric has one big advantage - 100% torque - all the time. There are other advantages too. No oil to change. No coolant. No gas. Regenerative braking.

Until then, keep your shiny side up.

Pictures of the models I owned appear here in historical order, from left to right (they're not mine of course).

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