When I remember the 650 Norton Mercury that I owned in my youth, I remember it in the fall. I rode the thing in spring and summer as well (in 1970 the winters in southern Ontario still inhibited motorcycle riding), but it is autumn with that bike that I remember most vividly, and the picture of Roland Brown aboard a Triumph Bonneville on pages 56-57 of the January issue brings those times back to me in striking clarity.
I remember riding from Muskoka to Toronto in October, wearing a poor assortment of gear—open face helmet, jean jacket over a sweater, work gloves, steel-toed boots—and being so cold that I could hardly get off the bike afterward. Stupid. But on other days, when the sun shone and the leaves were gold and crimson, and the air was just warm enough and smelled like woodsmoke, riding around the country roads of Muskoka was thrilling, even on a slug like the 650 Norton. I didn’t go fast—much more than 60 mph and the Norton would start to lose parts, or at least disconnect them—and in the summer it was just an underpowered and old-even-in-its-time British leaky twin, but in the crisp cool days of autumn there was something about ambling down a country road that was decorated with fallen leaves and surrounded by forests that you could see through—and maybe something about being 20 years old, too—that allowed a ride on that old Norton to stir the emotions in powerful ways on the right kind of day.
When I think of summer, I think of a GSX-R1100 that I owned in the mid-’80s. That air-and-oil cooled engine was a heat pump and the bike was like nothing I had ridden up to that time, explosive in first gear, anxious to lift the front wheel and about as comfortable as a first degree burn. I loved it and I hated it. I lived in a small city in the interior of British Columbia at the time, and the GSX-R (I’ve always hated the term “Gixxer”) was the only high-powered sportbike, or motorcycle of any type, really, in that place. I had none of the skills required to properly ride it, and I thought I looked very cool on it, so it was more of an ego exercise than a thrill to ride, if I’m being honest. And if I had any brains at the time I’d have realized that nobody gave a shit, nobody looked at me and thought, ‘Hey, isn’t he cool?’. So it’s fitting that my relationship with the Suzuki was an unhappy one that ended under the back fender of a pickup truck driven by an old man who didn’t think to look before he turned left. Once, trying to impress my boss, who was driving a BMW and had invited me to his country home, I accelerated wickedly past him as we approached his house. Then, when I was unable to stop in time even with a full-fingered grip on the front brake lever, the Suzuki’s front wheel popped over the edge of the road’s shoulder and dropped onto the slope that led down to his house, the bike high-centred and my boss laughing his face off. He didn’t fire me, anyway. Ah, the good old days. The heat of summer and that excitable motorcycle just seem to fit together, though I would have been better off to have bought something smaller and more comfortable. The GSX-R was the wrong bike for me.
Spring. Snow nearly gone, the sound of meltwater running in the gutters. Buds on the treetips and light lasting into the early evening. Working on my first bike, a Harley-Davidson that cried out for a more experienced mechanic, putting on a wiring harness that I’d had shipped from a shop in California (AE Choppers) and getting it so wrong that an actual mechanic had to undo the damage I wrought. But, and here’s the thing, I loved that bike with a passion I have seldom experienced since. I associate spring with that old Panhead because both the season and the motorcycle held out a promise that any young man would find irresistible: things will get good for you in the very near future. Dream away, it’s all coming to you. When the Harley was finally on the road (yes, having been rescued by an actual mechanic), it began to fall apart again with breathtaking rapidity.
But I was 19 and the fact that I had begun a long habit of buying the wrong bike would not occur to me for decades. I loved that piece-of-shit Harley, and if I still have a thing for motorcycles, it’s probably due in large part to the way I felt in that spring of 1968 whenever I looked at it, a feeling that I chase after to this day. Like there were more good things out there than I could grasp, so many and so much that all I had to do was reach out and pull back whatever my hand closed upon.
I’ve noticed that two of the bikes I’ve chosen to remember with fondness were motorcycles I owned in my youth, and the other one, the bike that I hated as much as I loved, I bought in my thirties. Maybe it’s not the bikes that I’m remembering, then; maybe it’s the times. Maybe there’s something about being 19 years old that colours even the wrong bike in a way that makes life better. If that’s true, it might be a message for 19-year-olds out there, thinking about buying a bike, wondering if they’re making the right choice. The message: yes, you are. It’s inevitable.