Welcome to a new series of interviews that we’ll be running on CMG , featuring well-known Canadians who ride. Be it the TV host that shows up on camera with his arm in a sling after crashing his bike, or the Prime Minister’s wife snapped riding out of 24 Sussex Drive on an XT225, you’d be surprised to know that quite a few notable Canadians get their kicks on two wheels.
And that’s the idea of this series, to dig around and find out who rides and then find out more about their two-wheeled personality. As you can imagine, this is a bit of a task but we’ve got a few in the bag and more in the works and we’re going to kick off with that guy I just mentioned who went on camera with his arm in a sling (sadly the girl who married the Prime Minister declined).
The guy’s name is George Stroumboulopoulos, of “George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight” on CBC TV, an avid motorcycle enthusiast, and not just one of those personalities that have a Harley in their garage because they think it makes them look cool.
George started out on a humble 1978 Honda CM185, and still rides a ratty old SOHC CB750, even though he’s got newer, shinier bikes in the garage. He likes to ride alone, rides to work when he can and loves blasting about Shannonville on his track bike.
We had the chance to chat with Stroumboulopoulos about bikes last June. Here’s some of what he had to say.
First off, Stroumboulopoulos says he didn’t just pick up motorcycling as another way to spend money when he hit Canadian television’s big time. He’s been into bikes ever since he was a little kid, and many years away from a driver’s licence and wheelies.
“I’ve got a picture of myself sitting on a motorcycle in Buffalo when I was probably five,” he says. “I don’t know why, I’ve just always, always liked them. My mother used to say that I would be in the car with her when I was really young, and motorcycles would pass by and I’d be out there giving them the thumbs up.”
Plus, like most other kids, he used bicycles for transportation, so when he was looking for cheap transportation to get around Toronto, he says it was logical to simply add a motor to the two wheels.
His mother wasn’t so happy with the idea, and still isn’t. When he bought his first bike — a 1978 Honda CM185 he picked up for a few hundred dollars cash — and rode home, he says she turned “pale as a ghost.” But he still managed to talk her into getting aboard and going for a ride shortly afterwards.
That CM185 became Stroumboulopoulos’s daily driver, even when the temperature dropped.
“I rode through the winter when I got my bike and went to college,” he says. “I was on the bike every day.”
He didn’t have the money to buy proper gear, so he’d throw on extra pants, jackets, and sweaters to keep warm.
“I would go to school at eight in the morning, and by the end of school at five or six o’clock, I’d still be in my gear, because I was still cold, and I was still chilled from riding through the winter,” he says. “I was ‘ghetto gear’ from the beginning of my motorcycle career up until about three or four years ago,”
As you’d expect, things are different these days. Although he rides year-round at his California residence, he usually starts riding in Canada in April or May, and tries to extend his season as far past Halloween as the weather allows – he isn’t going to risk his neck battling slush and bad drivers downtown once the snow starts to fall.
THE NEED FOR SPEED
Stroumboulopoulos has quite an eclectic collection, ranging from a ‘70s vintage Honda — a very cool CB750 cafe racer — to a BMW F800GS, two Kawasaki ZX6Rs (one for the track, one for the street) and a 2001 Suzuki GSX-R 750. However, if he was to sell his mother to buy a motorcycle, it would be a Vincent Black Shadow, or Ducati Tricolore (yes, we asked him that).
On the other hand, if he had to sell them off, the versatile BMW would be the last to go; it has the speed that Stroumboulopoulos loves, but the versatility that makes it so useful.
As much as he loves his GS, Stroumboulopoulos says sportbikes’ agility make them the perfect machines for the city streets. Plus, he says, if style is a big part of motorcycling, then riding down Toronto’s Yonge Street on a sport bike is A-OK with him.
The GSX-R 750 was his first sport bike, and his friends told him “every day” that he’d kill himself on it, something he almost achieved.
“I crashed my Gixxer in downtown Toronto, right across from Wayne Gretzky’s, around the corner from the CBC, and I broke my collarbone, had a concussion, scraped up my legs, and was really sore.”
He left the emergency room the morning after the accident and went straight to work with no painkillers, and spent the next week “green with pain” and his arm in a sling.
“I figured, if I’m going to ride like an idiot, in this particular incident, I’m going to suck it up, and I’m not going to allow myself to take any time off,” he says.
Not long afterwards, Tom Cruise came on Stroumboulopoulos’s show. They ended up talking bikes off-screen, like Stroumboulopoulos does with a lot of his guests. Cruise, an avid rider, had heard about the downtown accident, and suggested Stroumboulopoulos check out Keith Code’s California Superbike School.
Stroumboulopoulos says he wasn’t interested at first, but a few weeks later, Cruise sent a leather binder full of information about the school to his house, which convinced Stroumboulopoulos to try the school out.
The Keith Code school was a game-changer for him. Not only did he learn how to work a sport bike properly, he was also hooked on race tracks at the end of it.
“You could go fast, you could corner like crazy, and there’s no cops, and there’s no traffic, and everybody’s going in the same direction, in theory,” he says. “You know that first moment when your knee hits the ground and scrapes? That’s the greatest feeling, man.”
The skills he picked up also transformed his street riding, opening up the technical side of motorcycling.
“I bought a bike because I loved motorcycles but also because I need transport, and I couldn’t afford a car, and a motorcycle was just a cool way to get around,” he says. “Now when I ride I’m looking for the corner, I’m looking for the lane, I’m looking for the line. When I was 22, I wasn’t looking for the line.”
The focus needed to ride a motorcycle like that makes riding a great de-stresser for him.
“Riding a motorcycle properly requires a lot of attention to survive, that you don’t need for a lot of other things. Most of life, you just go through life … but to survive a motorcycle career … you just have to really pay attention to details,” he says. “What I find is, when I’m able to do that, I get to zone out of the rest of my life. I get a calmness and a peace that I can’t find elsewhere because I’m hyper-focused on one thing.
“You know, you’re coming out of the front straightaway in Shannonville, you’ve got to hit that right turn, that first right into Turn 1, which is not a hard turn, but you’re coming pretty quickly into it, so the back tire’s going to slide a little, and then you do 2 into 3, which is sort of a bowl in a way, and you want to make sure you want to get the line into 3 properly, because then you’re going to be properly positioned to do 4, and then that mini-straightaway into that crazy turn 5 …
“There’s things you really need to pay attention to – when you’re going to brake, when you’re going to point, you have tenths of seconds to make these choices,” he says.
“So in a way, yeah that does take me away from anything else; I get a quietness, I get a Zen in that moment.”
Outside of the track, Stroumboulopoulos says his favourite road to ride in Canada is, of all places, Toronto’s Queen Street.
“I love urban riding, I love the excitement of it,” he says. “I grew up in the city, I love the city … my entire riding career has been centered around avoiding minivans and kids kicking soccer balls.”
Stroumboulopoulos might have started his riding career with makeshift gear, but he says he’s a lot smarter about it now. He realized that injuries could end his motorcycle career long before he was ready for it. On the streets, he wears top-quality helmets and boots, and even a Dainese back protector. He still wears jeans on the bike, but he knows he shouldn’t.
And, he says you’ll never see him outfitted in the universal uniform of cruiser riders.
“Fifty per cent of motorcycling is performance, and fifty per cent is style, right? Chaps and a beanie, I’m not rockin’ that.”
His motorcycling dream job? Stroumboulopoulos says he’d love to open a shop with his friends and work as a motorcycle mechanic, “sitting around all day growing a beard, wearing a cut-off black T-shirt and just working on bikes.”
He still does some of his own motorcycle maintenance – he’ll change things like cables, tires and brakes – but like any old-school motorcyclist, he knows better than to start messing around with computer-related technology, like ABS systems.
Stroumboulopoulos’s all-time favourite motorcycle trip was a Toronto-New Orleans-Los Angeles ride that saw him visiting blues musicians’ graves across the U.S.; the high point was towards the end of the journey, as he rode through Joshua Tree National Park in California.
“Riding through Joshua Tree when the sun is setting and its hot but there’s a bit of a breeze- that might be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever been a part of on a bike in my life.”
If he was going to quit everything and leave tomorrow on a bike trip, he says he’d return there on his F800GS then head to Europe to visit World War II historical sites, something he’s always wanted to do but never had the chance to.
We asked him if he’d prefer to go with the riders from Long Way Down (Stroumboulopoulos is a big fan, and good friends with the director, David Alexanian) or Easy Rider. He picked Long Way Down “because the guys from Long Way down aren’t nearly as much of a heat score.” And, as he pointed out, things ended badly for the bikers in Easy Rider.
Speaking of pop culture, Stroumboulopoulos originally had his break in the media industry because of his love for music, and he still hosts the late-night CBC Radio 2 Strombo Show. But it took him a bit of thinking to come up with his favourite motorcycle song – he had lots of great road songs on his iPod, but there just aren’t many tunes out there that focus on bikes.
He ended up picking Motorcycle, by Love and Rockets, and Rancid’s Motorcycle Ride, despite its grim message. But, that’s not really surprising for a guy who learned to ride on the mean streets, and is still battling with Toronto’s downtown gridlock today.
Catch George on the TV with the start of George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight on CBC, airing for a half hour, starting 7 p.m.; the show premieres in its new slot on Monday, Sept. 17.
BIO (pulled from Wikipedia)
Creation: August 16, 1972, in Malton Ontario, Canada, to a Greek father from Egypt and a Ukrainian mother
Home: Toronto (during filming). California (otherwise)
Current occupation: Host of George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight (formerly The Hour) on CBC TV and the Strombo Show on CBC Radio 2
Notables: 8 Gemini Awards for The Hour, awarded an honourary Doctor of Laws, from the University of Calgary on November 13, 2007, awarded an honourary Doctor of Laws, from the University of Calgary on November 13, 2007, awarded an honourary degree in Communications from Humber College in June 2009, selected by the United Nations World Food Programme as an official ambassador in March 2011, named one of the 192 Young Global Leaders for 2012 by the World Economic Forum in March 2012.