Sunday, December 4, 2011

How and Why I got into Motorbikes

Gary France asked the following question this week on his blog Flies in Your Teeth:

"I have read a few motorcycling blogs recently that I haven't seen before. With almost all of them, I was left wondering how the authors of those blogs initially got into biking, and why?............ I would like to know your reasons, so if you want to participate in this, then write something on your own blog about 'How and Why I got into Motorbikes'."

I posted something like this when I started this blog.  After reading the many blog posts inspired by Gary's post, I think it's the perfect time to revisit the topic.  I'm hoping to answer Gary's question without covering exactly the same ground as in my first post.  So here goes.

One of the most difficult things I have ever done to this day, was learning to ride a bicycle.

I did it on a brand new 24", candy-apple red, Raleigh coaster-brake bike that I got for my seventh birthday.  I wanted that bike so badly.  Somehow, in my mind, I figured that by some magic, I'd just hop on that bike and ride off.  Reality intruded on that fantasy awfully fast.

The problem was that the bike was just too big for me. I could barely straddle the crossbar on tiptoes.

My first "ride" was with my dad holding the bike steady with his hand gripping the saddle from behind, as I wobbled along the driveway concentrating more on begging my father not to let go, than riding the bike.

I remember the frustration I felt, especially when the neighborhood kids who could ride were turning effortless circles and figure-eights in that driveway while I could barely go four dicey feet without my dad's guiding hand.

My parents got me training wheels, but I hated them because I had to choose  between trying to ride properly, which was a mixed bag of feeling the promise of what riding a bicycle could be, and having a training wheel kick in and feeling that horrible lurch; or giving in to the training wheel on one side or the other and riding painfully down the street at an awkward lean with the training wheel making the sound of a defective shopping cart rolling downhill.

Curiously, I have no memory of an 'ah-ha' moment when the art of riding a two-wheeler finally clicked.

We soon moved to a brand-new house, in a brand-new development in the suburbs. All my brand-new friends and I quickly evolved into Evil Knievels.  We tortured our bikes.

It started with jumping them off curbs; then slamming on the coaster brake to make dozens and dozens of unsightly J-shaped skid marks on the hot summer pavement; off-roading at breakneck speed along rutted farmer's paths and forest trails; even soaring off a seven foot berm over a sand pit,  launching the bike off the ledge,  dismounting in mid-air, leaving the bike to clatter into the sand, while we tucked and rolled trying not to meet up with it. We were nuts.

Those endless summers on two wheels, riding like maniacs for hours on end, made me one with my bike.  To this day, I feel intuitively what a two-wheeler is, and is not, willing to do in any given situation.

Naturally we all fantasized what riding a motorcycle would be like.  We used clothes pegs and baseball cards to imitate  the sound of a growling Harley, and imagined what a sprung saddle and suspension would do for the ride.

By the time I graduated to a three-speed bike in my early teens, that Raleigh was one stripped down, beaten up, mean-looking ride, with at least one cross-threaded, half-stripped axle, and handlebars that could no longer be tightened quite right.

At the high school I attended, a handful of the older students had Vespas, Lambrettas and 50cc or 90cc Hondas. I spent countless recesses and lunch breaks drooling over those bikes. I watched those riders start their bikes up with a sure-footed kick, and swoop off campus. I can still hear the put-putting sound the Italian scooters made, idling before take-off.

The closest I got to actually riding a motorbike, was riding pillion on a white Vespa for short ride, and riding pillion for a still shorter ride on my cousin's Triumph Bonneville, while my mother scowled and fretted.

By the time I was in university I managed to convince my grandmother and my mother to buy me a Solex moped.  That moped barely qualified as a moped.  And yet I used that bike up, logging more miles than I can remember.  It had some horrible features.  The absence of suspension meant chronic broken spokes.  I could never quite get the oil:gas mix right and I'd get powdery build up in the cylinder.  And talk about a defective drive-train: the Solex is front wheel drive; the motor sits on a pivot over the front wheel and an abrasive roller rests on the wheel and drives it by simple friction.  In the rain the roller looses traction slowing the bike, meaning that you get to enjoy the miserable wet ride in the rain even longer.

In the end, I could get the cylinder head off, clean out the residue, pop off a wheel, replace a few spokes, and take off on a weekend adventure in under 45 minutes.  And in spite of all that grief, I loved that bike.

Fast forward more years than I care to count.  It's August 2008, and I'm at a conference in Victoria, British Columbia, staying at the Empress Hotel.  I have a Sunday to kill.  I stroll down to the inner harbour in front of the hotel and notice scooter rentals.  Could I do it?  What if I break my neck?

I check out the price, and hang around watching people sail up, rent scooters and scoot off, with seemingly reckless abandon.  I hem, I haw.

Viciously prodded and hounded by a gaggle of angels perched on my shoulder, I shake a finger at myself, and head back to the hotel.  I sit in my room contemplating my computer, and the work I could get done.  But that scooter is dancing in my mind, taunting me.

I finally give myself a monumental kick in the butt, and nervously set out for the scooter rental shack.  It's difficult to resist the angels on my shoulders screaming at me to forget this stupidly risky scheme and get back to the safety of the Empress.  I stand there, imaginary fingers in my ears, humming a brave tune to drown out the heaven-sent voices, waiting my turn, forcing myself to plod through the rental process.

Finally, the paperwork done, the credit card surrendered, the charge racked up, the time is upon me.  I'm handed a helmet and led to the parking lot.  I'm nervous.  The angels are still screaming.  I strap on the helmet.

The rental guy gives me the most cursory instruction in the art of scootering.  "Insert the key here;  turn it like this;  make sure that this switch is in this position; now apply the brake; push that button" and the scooter coughs and sputters happily to life.  Now the guy asks me if I know how to ride.  "I'm really good with a bicycle" I say lamely.  He looks at me, and a fleeting shadow of doubt whisps across his face.

"Let's see you ride straight over there" he says, pointing to the sea wall "then turn around and ride back to me".  I nod like a dutiful student, gently twist the throttle and prudently make my way over to the sea wall in a nice straight-ish line, trying to look jaunty and confident.  The U-turn I manage to handle, haltingly, but at least there isn't any point when I'm going to lose control, or drop the bike.  I ride back to the shack.  I get a thumbs' up, and a nod, and the rental guy turns on his heels to serve another willing victim.

There I sit, astride the beast.  Alone.  Responsible.  Almost free.  Nervous.  Alert.  The angels are whimpering and trembling now, desperate, and bereft of hope.  The end may be near.

The devil on my shoulder gives me a hearty whack on the back, a wink, and a devilish scowl.  "Well done lad, now, let's get some lunch! Tally-Ho!"

I turn right on Government street and join the traffic.  It's the first time I'm on two wheels and taking up a whole lane!  I try to look cool and nonchalant.  Don't get too close to the car in front.  Easy on the throttle.  Every second I am learning more about the scooter, and learning more about riding.  It's all so new.  Clearly, it's not really like riding a bike.  But I'm not dead yet. Yay!!

I head over to Barb's Fish & Chips.
I pull into the parking lot, park the bike, pull it up on the stand, and turn off the motor.  "How cool is that?" I say casually to the devil.  He looks at me, nods knowingly and shoots me a devilish grin.  The angels have abandoned me, nowhere to be seen or heard.
After a delicious lunch, I decide to head up the shore road.

Before leaving, I pause to snap a picture of my ride:
I spend the next three or four hours happily exploring the coast beyond Victoria.  In my mind, the devil is casually wondering whether I could ride my steed all the way to Butchart Gardens.

I find myself on a quiet residential street, straddling the idling bike and studying my rumpled and woefully inadequate tourist map intently.  I'm feeling like a real biker now.  I no longer need the devil to egg me on.

I hear a female voice, "Can I help you?" it says.   I look up and there is this gorgeous, impossibly fit, tanned, young woman, perched on a Tour de France, multi-speed bike, probably all carbon fiber, decked out in skin-tight, blinding, multi-hued, blue and white spandex, offering to help me find my way. "Hi" I say, trying to sound casual, virile and possibly attractive.  " I'm not lost.  I was thinking of riding to Butchart Gardens... how far is it from here?" I ask politely.

"You won't get there on that thing" she says with disdain bordering on ridicule and with a dismissive, deprecating tone.  She kicks a pedal and in an instant, she's off, leaving me there, my ego deflating with a pathetic, mournful hiss.

I head back the way I came, the beautiful spandex wonder receding quickly from my consciousness, washed away by the pure bliss of riding that scooter.

Later that fall, my wife and I visit Paris and Barcelona, firsts for both of us.

Quite aside from the amazing experience of gobs of European culture and delight, I marveled at the two-wheel culture.  Bicycles, Velibs, scooters, motorcycles, filling the streets, lining the sidewalks, students, young professionals, gray-haired men,  executives in expensive suits, women in business atire, every single segment of society on two wheels.

Guess where that lesson led?

I suppose that if you're a follower of my posts, you already know the answer.

I think I'll make a point of revisiting this topic once a year or so.  It's quite therapeutic to remember how I got here.  Thanks Gary!

Now I'll go back to reading other posts of riding-bloggers' reminiscences.  It's nice to find those unexpected common threads.


Troubadour said...

What a great story and great writing. I too have rented a scooter and it felt like I was right there with you like that devil on your shoulder. Thanks for sharing.

Keith - Circle Blue said...

The day I picked up my first scooter was the first time I'd ever been on one. Honestly, the guy who sold me the scoot didn't even give as much coaching as your rental guy. After the ride I was wondering what had I done, but of course we know I soon figured out exactly what I'd done :)

Very nice post. Thanks for the share.

Dar said...

You shouldn't have listened to the spandex vixen, you could have made it out to Butcharts easily got out West Saanich road. Awesome story about scooting. I think lots of people get started out scooting this way. Reading about when you learned to bicycle takes me back to when I learned to ride a 2 wheeler. Tanks for the trip down memory lane.

Gary France said...

Terrific tale, well told. I am glad that you joined in the challenge of re-living how and why you got into motorbikes. I am also pleased that you persevered and you eventually made the gaggle of angels whimper and tremble!

David Masse said...

Troubadour, Gary, thanks for the kind words.

Keith, it either takes nerves of steel, or callous disregard for humanity, to be inthe scooter rental business. I have them to thank for this wonderful adventure.

Dar, as near as I can remember, I was on Cordova Bay Road at Patricia Bay Highway when I turned back. I did a few hundred yards on the highway but my little rental scoot couldn't keep up and I didn't feel safe. The next time I'm there, I'll make it to Butchart for sure!

Trobairitz said...

Awesome post David. The way you tell the tale make me think I'm are right there watching you.

I can't believe I've never ridden a scooter. One of these days Troubadour and I will have to rent one.

David Masse said...

Trobairitz, I would love to ride a motorcycle just for the pleasure of riding a bike that's more technically challenging, but a motorcycle would not work nearly as well for commuting as my Vespa and commuting is 98% of my riding. For instance, I can filter through traffic that leaves motorcyclists stuck in the queue; I don't pay for parking in the underground garage where I work because my Vespa takes up a space that the owner can't rent out anyway, whereas the guy who commutes on a motorcycle pays over $350 a month for his spot; I can park on sidewalks and squeeze into small spaces pretty much anywhere, but motorcycles are much more limited to officially designated PTW parking in the downtown core; on the other side of the coin, I could use more power than my 150 affords, particularly on the expressway where I am often riding wide open throttle and doing 65-73 mph indicated (depending on headwind wind and whether I'm drafting an 18 wheeler), but a GTS 300 or an MP3 500 would be more than enough. I think that the most PTW I will eventually get will be a Vespa GTS or a Piaggio MP3. One thing that I find interesting is that pound for pound, scooters outperform motorcycles with similar displacements. A good friend of mine rode a 250cc motorcycle for a few years and his bike could barely do 60 mph, whereas my 150cc Vespa will do 65 mph all day long without complaint.

Unknown said...


From Cordova Bay road all you had to do was go north until you hit the freeway and just go across, do not take the Pat Bay Highway. That road would have eventually taken you to West Saanich Road, thus towards Butchart Gardens on a 49cc scooter friendly road.

Vancouver is not as scooter friendly as either Montreal, or Portland, OR. You cannot park on sidewalks, Nor bike racks, Nor do you get free parking in parkades. The parking enforcement are mean and often get scooters towed away. I would not recommend a 150cc on our expressways, you will be run off the road with our aggressive drivers who also tailgate. You need some reserve power.

Riding the Wet Coast

SonjaM said...

Sweet story, thank you. Everybody can ride a motorcycle. The question is: are you tough enough to ride a scooter!

len@RE-GLAZE-IT said...

Nice postin david,

It was a nice read!

and brought back many memories!!!


I was around 10yrs old and going through a troubled period of childhood and more than anything i needed something to fill a void,and two wheels and a engine did just that.

It all started at a garden/garage sale ......£5 got me a mobelette 50cc frame & wheels ect plus 2 boxes of engine parts,the guy said its spares or scrap only and YOU WILL NEVER GET IT GOING!

The very next day i was riding it around the fields with my mates!

The rest is history.

fondest regards

scootering adventures

The copyright in all text and photographs, except as noted, belongs to David Masse.