Opinion: Birthday bikes

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Another year, another birthday, and another memorable ride. It doesn’t really matter where I go every July 30. Just let me take off and explore some new roads, or discover some new places never noticed on roads I thought I knew well. That’s a great birthday gift, and it’s what a motorcycle ride should be.

I wrote last year about my first great ride, on my 16th birthday when my driver’s licence became valid. Then when I turned 21, I bought my first powerful motorcycle, a Kawasaki GPZ 750, which I collected on my birthday from Colin at Two Wheel Motorsports in Guelph. I’d already bought the leather pants and leather jacket, and I wore them for the first time when I collected it. The pants were really tight, so they could do double-duty at the disco, and when I swung my leg over that saddle for the first time, they split from crotch to crack. I rode all the way home with my ass in the breeze.

That’s Mark’s brand new GPZ parked among some friends’ bikes, ridden to a pool party on his 21st birthday. And yes, he changed out of his leather pants beforehand.

I kept that bike for two years before selling it to buy a more licence-friendly, dual-purpose bike: my Suzuki DR600. On that birthday, I took the big DR off-road for the first time when I found a quarry with a large puddle; I rode through but stalled in the middle of the water. Some other riders on smaller bikes saw me and rode over to see what was going on. I was mortified while they literally rode circles around me in the water. Maybe that was the day I learned that bigger isn’t always better.

Ten years later, I was working for an aid agency in Africa and needed to attend a local community meeting in the middle of Rwanda. Normally, I would be driven there in a car with a security escort but, because it was my birthday, I persuaded the Country Director to let me sign out one of the couriers’ little motorbikes. I rode that Bajaj to the top of a mountain with a local guy riding ahead to show the way, and it was glorious to just ride for myself on the red dirt trail. On the way down afterwards, the guide proved himself a much better rider and I crashed trying to keep up through some sand. No harm was done and we bent the handlebars straight again, and returned the bike with no fanfare.

Three years later, living in England and the owner of a Suzuki GS550, I was tied to the schedule of our new baby and never rode the bike except to commute in and out of London. On my birthday, though, I took off for a few hours to explore some of the country lanes around Oxfordshire – places I would normally only visit in a car because it was the only way to carry our child. That was a relaxing ride, without a map and following only the hints of interesting place names on sign posts. It was my best gift of the day.

There’ve been others: the time I rode a Honda 919 on the day I turned 40, and at the exact hour of my birth, I cracked the throttle leaving some lights on Hwy. 2 near Brantford, lifting the front wheel for the best wheelie of my life (which isn’t saying much). As soon as the wheel dropped back down, a police car crested the hill toward me, just a moment too late to witness the stunt. And the time I rode my second DR600 to Guelph and found a mystical place in the middle of nowhere that sold me a pottery angel that still hangs on my bedroom wall.

This year, perhaps the best birthday ride ever: I rented a significant bike and rode it from Prague to Poland and back, with a detour through Germany.  That’s a teaser photo at the top of this column, and you can read about it at Canada Moto Guide on Friday.

The point is, a ride doesn’t need much to be successful: just one thing that’s different, one thing that becomes memorable. You can do it any day of the year when the weather is suitable and the roads are clear. But when you can do it on your birthday, that’s a gift. A gift to yourself.

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