My legs are wobbling. I reach to the table for support. I am watching a video on YouTube on how to adjust the valves on my Ducati 888. (Before that I watched a documentary film on Pablo Picasso and before that trippy ’70s footage of Leon Russell and JJ Cale jamming in LA.) I set my headphones down and shakily make my way to the washroom, and notice — finally — that dawn is approaching. This is the third night in a row I’ve not slept.
If you live long enough, you’ll have back issues. Mine have occasionally brought me to my knees, but this time it’s different. This time it’s keeping me on my feet. To sit is excruciating. To lie down is worse. So I stand. My legs have swollen and my fat ankles remind me of the Avon lady that visited my mother. But there’s more than physical pain.
I was supposed to ride the new Ducati Panigale 1299, but had to cancel the press launch invitation at the last minute. I’m a sport bike guy. I’m a noisy-Italian-motorcycle sport bike guy. To miss an opportunity to ride a 205 horsepower V-twin at my favourite racetrack is a misery all its own. (Incidentally, that 205 horsepower claim is exactly that: a claim. Just because I’ve fondness for a brand doesn’t mean I swallow every statistic.)
Through the kitchen window I watch the sun peek over the garage. The green ready light of the battery tender can be seen though the garage window. It’s not a day any sane person would ride a motorcycle (the high is 20 below) but if it were 25 above it wouldn’t make a difference — in my condition I can’t ride a motorcycle, and I’ve been this way for months.
The season-ending Fall Tour didn’t come a moment too soon. I limped to Delaware and back and gritted my way through a flat track school. All winter long I’ve been jabbed by physiotherapists and interrogated by doctors with infuriating questionnaires. (One doctor asked me to rate my pain on a scale of one to 10. I said 10. “Are you sure it’s not closer to a nine?” he asked. “No,” I said. “It’s a 10 because I’m looking for a length of rope.” He set his pen down. “We have people you can talk to.” The last thing I need is someone else to talk to.
Sleepless nights bring on a darkness blacker than midnight. What if this pain can’t be made to go away? So far the pain hacks through the meds I’ve been gobbling like a machete eating through jungle. Could I learn to ride a bike in this pain? Is it possible? My father rode until he was 80; a few miles on his June birthday then his helmet came off for good. The deliberate way he lifted his leg over the seat of his Triumph didn’t mean much to me back then, but now, when climbing a set of stairs is a chore, I understand it in a new light, have a new respect for the way he gritted his teeth and just got on with it.
When I landed at Cycle Canada a decade ago my motorcycling had stopped. I wasn’t an enthusiast who’d bagged a dream job but a man with a pregnant wife who required employment. My race bikes had long ago been sold and my street bike had dissolved into boxes of parts. I had stopped following the magazines and wouldn’t have bothered to cross the street to check out a curbside Black Shadow or Z1 or bevel drive 900SS.
But that was then. In addition to a livelihood, my time at Cycle Canada has given me something else: a love of riding — specifically racing. My interpretation of the word “motorcycling” is that it is an athletic pursuit. I’m not a cruiser or a tourer or a restorer. My motorcycling requires elevated fitness and strength and balance, attributes that, at 50, have begun to take their leave. But I’m determined not to age any more gracefully than I dance: I’m digging my heels in and hanging on for as long as I can.
The doctor’s injections have worked — touch wood. The miracle serum in the syringe killed the pain in my back and my leg and, with luck, will keep it away for a year, maybe more. But nothing has been permanently fixed, just the nerves numbed until next time. It’ll take a lot of work for me to get back to where I was last summer. Four months of limping has my body kinked in the middle like a dented fender, and unless I concentrate while I walk the limp returns.
I’m back at the gym with a workout tailored to strengthen my core and give my back an easier time of it. Every move I make slowly, deliberately. When my motivation fades I think of the machinery in my garage. My 888 that’s ready and waiting (finally) for that May track day. Or my flat tracker. Or my 916.
The scare of this winter was that of a future without the ability to ride. It’s been a sobering slap-in-the-face, and if any good is to come from the months of pain it’s the conviction that I’m not ready to let go of it. I was a careful eater and a regular exerciser before, but now I’ve got the fire of someone who had a glimpse of life with a passion stripped away before its time.