Starting somewhere

By Neil GrahamPosted on

He stands six-foot-four, has just turned 30, drives an 18-wheeler, lives in a small Ontario town, and is married to a friend’s eldest daughter. He’s burly, not heavy, a little like our James Nixon. (If I offended a stranger in a bar — it’s happened before — I’d thrill to be in the company of either.) George and I are talking motorcycles. He wants a bike. I ask what he likes. Harleys, he says. My friend’s other children groan. I defend George. You like what you like, I say, and encourage him to buy a Harley. But it’s not that simple. It never is.

The Harley he wants is $30,000. You can buy them for less, I say, and suggest a basic big twin. Yeah, he says, but the one he wants is $30,000.

And he anticipates riding it three or four weekends a year. Overkill, I say. He agrees. I suggest a used Honda Shadow. It’s a cruiser, it looks OK, it’s reliable, and you’ll likely get your money back when it’s time to sell. George fixes me with a sour look, grimaces, and sucks air though his teeth. Did I say something wrong? He just can’t see himself on a Honda Shadow. He’s not a Shadow guy. It wouldn’t wash with his Harley-riding friends, he says.

The next time I see George is at the motorcycle show. He looks down at me and asks what I think of the Aprilia Shiver. Gives me the chills, I say. He gives me a sharp look. It’s a joke. The awkward moment lingers. It’s a good bike, the Shiver, but do you fit it? When he sat on it he didn’t put his feet on the pegs. You may want to try that, I say. He walks away and returns 20 minutes later. It’s a no-go, he says. Too tight through the legs. 

And then come more questions, about Ducati Scramblers and Triumphs and the BMW R1200GS. All good, I say. Scramblers are nicely priced, and would make a funky four-times-a-year motorcycle. And the adventure-touring Triumphs and BMWs have good legroom. Now we’re getting somewhere. And then George says he’s never ridden a motorcycle. Really? I ask. Really, he says. We stare at each other. Back to the beginning.

Smaller bikes are discussed and dismissed. Honda CBR125R I say, and we simultaneously howl in laughter. Then we troll through every little bike from every brand. I list bikes and George hammers down the verdict: too ugly, too fiddly, too orange, too plasticky, too busy, and just too something-or-other that he can’t find the words to express. I send George out on the show floor to create a shortlist. He comes back an hour later. He has taken notes on his cell phone and pulls up the questions.

Why, asks George, is the Ninja 650 cheaper than the Ninja 636? One’s a sportbike, I say, and the other is not. But the 650, with its larger engine, must be faster than the 636? No, it’s the other way around. Huh? And the 650 is a twin, while the 636 is a four-cylinder. So the 650 is like a Harley, he says, because Harleys are twins, too. No, I say, the Harley is a V-twin while the Ninja 650 is a parallel-twin. Different animal. And the 650 is more comfortable than the 636, too. I get it, he says. People buy the sportbike because they’re going to use them exclusively on a racetrack. Not really, George, because most people who buy sportbikes don’t take them on a racetrack. He stares at me. I tell him that some people (like me) just like sportbikes. And they’re more expensive to insure, too, I say. George shakes his head.

George is not satisfied with my answers, and is oblivious to the informal queue of readers who have assembled around the magazine’s booth at the show wishing a word with me. George faces me in the middle of the aisle, dividing traffic to one side of him or the other, like a rock in the middle of a stream. My patience is gone.

Sometimes, I say, a motorcycle is just a motorcycle. They’re powered two wheelers — all of them — so any choice is the right choice. All the same? Yes, George, they’re all the same, really. So why do you have old Italian motorcycles if they’re all the same? You’re either fixing and cursing or raving and in love, he says. This is unexpected. I want to grab him by the ear and give it a hard twist, but James Nixon is on a plane coming home from Australia, and not beside me to save me should George lose his patience. We stand, still, in the aisle.

The act of motorcycling is — and always has been — intimately intertwined with the machinery. I’ve ridden most motorcycles made in the past 10 years. Could I be happy with most of them? Yes. But if I could only own and ride a 20-year-old cruiser with straight pipes and tassels hanging from the handlebar, would I remain a motorcyclist? Likely not. I guess I’m a poser. George, I say, you just need to start. You can’t tell what you like or dislike by sitting on a bike at a show. You need experience. But where do I get it, he says. By experiencing things, I say. Stop thinking and start doing. George smirks. My mom says you’ve done a lot of that. I drop my head. George slaps me so hard on the shoulder that I suspect he’s dislocated it, and then heads off, I presume, in search of someone else to torment.


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