The Konker started, reluctantly, with the third or fourth tap of the button. It sputtered briefly, then idled up to a shrill wail as its cold single cylinder was hammered down by repeated explosions. There was blue smoke, and the faint smell of burnt oil.
This was not the standard startup ritual of the Konker. Normally it just went. But on this cool, damp morning in deepest New Brunswick, the bike was unsure of itself. It was as though it sensed what was coming. It was afraid.
I was lined up for the third annual Fundy Adventure Rally, amid more than a hundred off-road motorcycle enthusiasts, and as the waves of high powered dual-sport machines tore off one by one, the Konker was not the only thing feeling fear.
When I first met Rob Harris, he was setting up the CMG booth at a motorcycle show in Toronto. I was there as an exhibitor too, showing off my electric racing prototype and hanging out with my old gang at Cycle Canada. I didn’t know Rob, didn’t read CMG, and didn’t really care for the whole adventure motorcycle routine.
Rob came over and we started to talk. It didn’t take long to find out that we shared the same sense of humour. By the end of the show, we decided to share a ride back to the east coast in my van: a long, snowy trip that cemented our friendship and introduced me to a new vein of motorcycle culture.
As anyone who reads CMG knows, this is a magazine that loves adventure biking. BMW GS, Suzuki V-Strom and Kawasaki KLR people congregate here in comfort and in large numbers, sharing stories and glowing in mutual congratulation. Dirt and asphalt mix at CMG like gin and vermouth, forming a pleasant and potent cocktail for those afflicted by passions for ugly and versatile motorcycles.
Until I met Rob, motorcycles for me were about connecting endless serpentine corners with elegant, graceful turns. Braking, leaning in, accelerating out. A brilliant motorcycle had to be beautiful, light, and fast. At least that’s how I saw it. Before the brown times. Before the Konker.
Years passed, and I found myself part of the CMG family. Rob and I spoke all the time and his enthusiasm for adventure motorcycles become infectious. I was invited to go on a tour of Nova Scotia on a trio of current adventure models, and it was there that I popped my dirt-road cherry.
I hated it. I was deeply discomforted by the lack of grip, the vague steering feedback and blinded by the dust. Back on pavement I composed myself, and reaffirmed my leanings: adventure motorcycles are not for me.
But, there was Rob, carving large circles in the gravel on a 220 kg motorcycle, shooting pebbles 10 feet into the air with his rear wheel, with poise and control. Rob, grinning like an errant child after hooning a $25,000 press bike down a rutted path at high speed. That took skill, and it looked like fun.
After being fed a steady stream of adventure-touring propaganda for more than a year, a plan was hatched. I was invited to participate in the Fundy Adventure Rally. It would be the culmination of my own summer of adventure, wherein I would drop into the deep and ride as many adventure bikes as possible, and then get properly muddy on a dual sport.
With no reason to deny myself this experience, I agreed. We came up with a loose training plan of escalating difficulty that would, we hoped, prepare me for the rally. There was talk of advanced rider courses, of practising dirt trails with Rob on board the extremely capable Honda CRF250L, and I even went so far as to consider purchasing a dual sport myself.
But the best laid plans, and all that… One day Rob was gone, and the idea of riding a motorcycle, any motorcycle, seemed unsavoury. I sold my vintage bike, and spent a lot of time contemplating why I should bother riding at all. I spoke to biker friends about my anxiety. Why on earth would anyone operate such a dangerous thing? Were we mental?
The funk didn’t last. An opportunity presented itself in the form of Honda’s CB500X and I took it, literally, to the ends of the earth (in Nova Scotia at least), and back. I tested it on dirt, then gravel, and eventually some pretty sketchy backwoods paths.
It, and I, were fine. More than fine. I liked conquering the fear of handling a 200 kg motorcycle on rocks and sand. I also appreciated the entirely new skills that I was just beginning to acquire, 25 years into my motorcycle life. More than anything, I felt reborn. I felt joy. I felt like for the first time in 25 years, I was really excited about the possibilities of motorcycling. The risks were there, but as a novice in the dirt deep in the woods, speeds were lower, and the total lack of SUVs and distracted drivers seemed reasonable.
Courtney, Rob’s widow and the publisher of CMG, agreed that I should go ahead with the plan and ride the Fundy Adventure Rally. It was something that Rob wanted, that I wanted, and frankly we all felt would make a good story. On a hot summer day I drive up to Sackville and pushed the Konker, a trashed little Chinese motorcycle, into a rented cargo van. My mission was to get it going, get some practice in, and then return in September to participate in the rally.
The Konker’s origins and previous adventures have been chronicled extensively on CMG, but it is worth a few lines to complete the picture of this noble steed. Starting life as a Qingqi, it’s a rough copy of a Suzuki DR200 that was distributed in Canada by an outfit that called itself Konker. This particular machine was given to CMG as payment for some advertising, and became the company work horse after that.
I first rode the Konker in the Dawn 2 Dusk rally in 2014. It was cold and rained heavily all morning, straining the already questionable tires to the very limits of adhesion. But after 800 km in one day, I learned to love the Konker. It was a small motorcycle best kept on the boil, using the throttle like a switch: on or off, to keep momentum. I genuinely had fun riding it.
It was originally a supermotard, equipped with 17-inch road wheels and tires. But Rob wanted to use the Konker for adventure, and scouting duty on the Fundy rally, so he began converting it by cannibalizing the suspension, brakes and wheels from a Kawasaki KLR and grafting them onto the little Chinese wonder. He was about 90 per cent done with the transplant when he died.
I unloaded the Konker in my driveway, along with a cardboard box of parts scavenged from Rob’s workshop, and started to take it all in. The bike looked strange: with the long stroke KLR forks and squatting on its rear wheel, it had an almost cruiser appearance. With the help of a friend, a new battery and lots of sweat we got it running, tightened up the front end and made sure the brakes worked. Courtney mailed a fresh sticker for the license plate and it was ready to test.
The Konker was tested slowly along some logging roads in the interior of Nova Scotia with another friend twice before heading back to New Brunswick for the Fundy Rally. I had logged three hours on the new Kawa-Konker for a total of perhaps five hours of off-road experience in all. Now I was lining up for a 300-km group ride on unfamiliar roads with hundreds of highly experienced riders.
I needn’t have worried. We all agreed that the purpose of my participation was journalistic, and that if I managed to do two or three hours then head back, that would be a victory. But something funny happened after two or three hours: the Konker wove its magic and I found myself riding with a big smile among a group of super people.
By lunchtime, it was clear the Konker was game. It needed an occasional infusion of fresh plastic cable-ties to keep various body parts from falling off, and the headlight didn’t work, but the motor, clutch and gearbox were smooth and reliable. With a little helpful advice from Mark Richardson, who was kind enough to hang back and ride with me, I even gained confidence on some of the knarlier bits of backcountry.
The Fundy Adventure rally was one of the most profound motorcycle experiences of my life. When we pulled into the camp many hours later, the Konker had for me become a delightful companion. I trusted it. I had actually become really fond of it. Around the giant campfire late that night, surrounded by a hundred fellow rally participants, people kept asking about the motorcycle, making derogatory jokes and ribbing me about it, but I felt genuinely proud of it. It started out as a silly adventure, a joke, fodder for a good story. But it had become something else.
When we conceived of the idea, for me as a novice in off-road motorcycling to ride the Konker in the Fundy Adventure rally, it was a lark. I am not a motorcycle journalist. I am not a test rider. I am a regular guy who happens to have worked in the industry for many years and wrote a column about it. For Rob, that was the appeal of the stunt. We all knew that an expert could ride a shitty, underpowered Frankenbike. But could anyone?
It was typical of Rob’s sense of humour to advocate for projects like these. He was the man behind the Mad Bastard scooter rally, the Dawn till Dusk rally for bikes under 250cc. He liked to poke deliberately at the status quo, and the often highly conservative motorcycle establishment. He spoke his mind but also never failed to do so with a disarming charm.
This story was meant to be reported months ago, but it has become the hardest thing I have ever been able to write. When I first heard that Rob was gone, I was pretty numb, but a few days later I sat on my bed and cried. Looking back, it became clear to me that while I was struck by the finality of it all, that I would never again enjoy the two-hour phone calls that meandered around Monty Python and occasionally motorcycles, I also wept out of pure frustration and fear. As motorcyclists know, this was something that could happen to anyone, but it doesn’t happen to us. I had felt the terrific fear that comes with facing one’s own mortality. And motorcycles had brought this feeling to me.
Rob wanted me to be part of the Fundy rally. He goaded me for years to see the appeal of adventure biking, of the many delights it offers. In the end he managed to do it, aboard his own creation. Through the Kawasaki-Konker hybrid, a vehicle of the absurd, a construct built at its foundation from a most undeserving motorcycle, Rob delivered me a new place where I could discover the joys of motorcycling all over again. One last gift from a generous friend.