Opinion: Why we ride

I spent much of this weekend surrounded by crazed motorcyclists. These are the people who either ride adventure bikes to the farthest corners of the world, or who want to do so. The unsung Ewans and Charleys.

It was the Ontario meeting of the Horizons Unlimited Motorcycle Travellers, an annual event with more than 100 riders; it’s one of many similar events around the world, some of which are considerably larger. As the Horizons Unlimited website states, quite openly: “Admit it, all your ‘normal’ friends and most of your family fears for your sanity! So, this is your opportunity to meet the people who will encourage you in that craziness, share their experiences and advice on how to do it, and maybe you’ll meet them again in Mongolia or Timbuktu!”

So I rode the Harley up from my home in Cobourg, 25 minutes away, to see what all the fuss was about.

In fact, the weekend was very civilized, held at the Golden Beach Resort on Rice Lake. It was a couple of days of presentations by experienced travellers – everything from how to ride to Ushuaia and Ulan Bator, to how to manage your finances and travel with children. There was a CMG connection, too: Oliver Solaro was there to talk about his epic winter ride to help the sled dogs of Churchill, and Liz Jansen was there to talk about surviving a crash to discover her roots in Alberta. It wasn’t just sitting around and eating and drinking, though: there were also a couple of motorcycle scavenger hunts in the nearby Ganaraska Forest.

Time well spent, for sure, but I wanted to know why these adventurers do what they do. Specifically, why they do it on a motorcycle. After all, if they travelled around in a Jeep, there’d be the freedom to not wear helmets and jackets, and to lock everything away securely. So why a bike?

Left to right:Greg Powell. Brian Kennedy, Dieter Eberhardt, Oliver Solaro, Michel Levesque, Liz Jansen, Adam Tworkowski, Jennifer Paige. Standing is Bill Hooykaas. Missing is Jeff Luttmer.

Here’s what they said, during an “Ask Us Anything” panel at the end of the event:

Greg Powell: “Motorcycles are much more exciting, and they encourage you to interact with people. Everything’s more open on a bike.”

Brian Kennedy: “In 2017, I rode across to California and up to Vancouver, and it was two weeks of weather hell. Tornadoes, rain, 50 mph gusting winds. When I got back, I thought, ‘I’m tired of this,’ and two weeks later I sold my motorcycle. I bought myself a (Toyota) 4Runner, and last year, I did the exact same trip. It was good weather and everything, but when I came back, I just felt hollow. It wasn’t like motorcycling at all. On a motorcycle, you get to record everything with all your senses. In a car, it’s like a 2D movie, but on a motorcycle, everything’s in 3D.”

Dieter Eberhardt: “I’ve always found that in a vehicle, you’re insulated and isolated from the world around you. On a motorcycle, you’re part of the real world.”

Oliver Solaro: “Human beings thrive on challenge. Nothing great has ever happened to anyone vegging out with a bag of Doritos, watching Netflix. Everything good in this world – everything utterly fantastic and interesting that has ever happened to anyone – came about because of something they did that they probably weren’t supposed to. And this is why we ride a motorcycle when Mom and Dad say we should at most be in a Jeep.”

Yes, it’s a motorcycle, and Oliver Solaro is riding it with Bruce because he probably shouldn’t. And it’s better than Netflix and Doritos.

Michel Levesque: “On a motorcycle, you’re very close to nature and everything around you. You can feel the cold in a half a second, the smell of everything is instant.”

Liz Jansen: “It just feels so natural and a part of you, and you’re who you are when you’re riding. At the same time it challenges you: every ride is an adventure, and you never know what that adventure is going to be. It’s going to tell you to do something out of your comfort zone.”

Adam Tworkowski: “My motorcycle is an extension of myself, but my car, it just feels like I’m sitting in something.”

Jennifer Page: “It’s just always been something I had to do. Motorcycling touches us somewhere, and it’s inside us. And it’s cool, and it gives us good stories to tell. My car is for commuting, and my bike is for life.”

Bill Hooykaas: “I just love the G-forces of ripping up snaky roads, but it’s also meeting the people. Everybody’s father or grandfather rode a motorcycle, it seems. In my travels, wherever I go, it is my icebreaker. I don’t care if I speak the language or not – those people will come talk to me. Especially in Third-World countries, the first experiences people have are with a motorcycle. It takes away the stigma when they see us in our fancy Klim or Aerostich clothes that they have something in common with us.”

Jeff Luttmer: “I think it was Joe (Enberg) who came up with this, as a metaphor. He said to me, ‘In a car, it’s like you’re watching a movie. On a motorcycle, you’re in the movie.’”

Robert Pirsig and his son Chris, in 1968.

Actually, that metaphor is 45 years old and comes from Robert Pirsig, who wrote on page 2 of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.

“On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.”

I find it heartening that a metaphor from 1974 is as relevant in today’s era of whiz-bang technology and technical wizardry as it was back then. It doesn’t really matter what you ride or where you go, whether it’s Vladivostok on a 1250GS or the corner store on a Honda Rebel, your motorcycle puts you in the frame. It’s not for commuting; it’s for life.


  1. Thank you for capturing the essence Mark. It was a pleasure to meet you and I look forward to one day sharing another scene in this film called life.

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