I realized that this blog might imply that I am cool, and I have to report that I have blown it pretty bad so many times in an attempt to embrace what it means to ride a motorcycle. Learning something new requires you to humiliate yourself, and it irritates me when folks who have finally gained some confidence then shun beginners, as though they have never been there or just want to deny their ordeal. So, here is a run down of my early days to make anyone considering riding motorbikes feel better.
The first time I dumped my motorcycle was with my friend Rhianon, who was also learning to ride. We were lurching around some side streets trying to master first and second gear without stalling, when we decide to pause and figure out where we will go next. I’m backing up the motorbike to the curb and in slow-motion drop the bike. No big deal, but this nasty pedestrian comes up to me and laughs in my face! She made me feel like an idiot. Fortunately, my friend reassured me that at least I was trying and putting myself out there. The laughter came from a stranger, but the next ride was the worst.
A small group of us were attempting our first ride away from the comforts of our neighbourhood. We were going to do the UBC loop and cruise along Vancouver’s waterfront. We decide to stop in at a house in Marpole, where most of the Night Fighter guys lived. After a bit of socializing, we prepare to continue our ride. My Honda is a kickstart-only and so I go to kick it over, but I’ve left the bike in first gear. I lurch forward dramatically and fly into a bush, with the bike falling on top of me! And this is in front of my friends, who are in hysterics. The one guy runs into the house to try and find his video-camera, and no one helps me to get the bike off of me. Suddenly, my new nickname is BUSH. A lady never wants her nickname to be Bush, but that’s what I got stuck with. My friend even embroidered a patch with a green bush on it. Fortunately, I’ve learned to laugh at myself so I went ahead and sewed on the patch, and simply accepted my fate.
The first year of riding was a steep and exciting learning curve. With the help of my friends, I had passed the licensing process without having to take an expensive course and gone on a few minor roadtrips. On one trip to Tofino, I was commenting on how difficult riding motorcycles was because of how badly the bike would shake. My friend’s boyfriend Chris asked me what I meant and I further explained how I constantly had to maintain control of the bike because the handle-bars shook back and forth. He took a closer look at my bike and noticed that I still had the original tires on… from 1979! The front tire was so cracked and bulbous that Chris insisted on taking it for a test ride. He came back white as a sheet and totally freaked out. Chris made me promise to immediately upgrade the tires, as I was riding a timebomb waiting to explode.
By the end of my second summer I was confident riding alone, and one Friday night I decided to take the ferry to Vancouver Island since my friends were camping out and had left earlier in the day, while I was working at the library. I had some vague directions to a cabin near Campbell River, but didn’t realize that once you get going on the highway you truly are alone. The darkness came early, and there was a super long stretch of highway in a forest where I managed to drain my tank of gasoline. Staying calm, I flipped on the reserve, took the first exit and barely rolled into the one open gas station in the nick of time. I continue to my destination as a thick fog rolls in, and suddenly I can make out two ghostly deer running beside my bike. I’ve hit and killed a deer before in a car, and definitely didn’t want want to repeat the experience on a motorcycle. I am thoroughly spooked, but seem to miraculously make it to the cabin and an incredible bonfire was waiting for me with welcoming faces around it.
At the end of the weekend I distinctly recall Chris asking Erika if she had checked her oil levels, and I kick myself to this day for not checking my own bike. I genuinely had no idea that checking the oil on your motorcycle was so crucial – no one had ever told me, and I had never owned a vehicle before. Rhianon had asked me if I had plenty of gasoline for the ride back, and that I was confident on. So, we’re rolling off the ferry back on the mainland, heading up the hill when my bike starts lurching, sputtering, and dies, just as the traffic is piling up behind us. I push my bike to the side of the highway and watch as all my friends blast on ahead, with the exception of one buddy. I can’t blame my friends for charging home, but since this was before I owned a cell phone I would have been screwed for a very long time, so am grateful to my Good Samaritan. My friend Will soon discovered that I had seized the engine, and I was deeply ashamed. He doubled me back into town, we grabbed his truck, drove back to Horseshoe Bay, picked up the bike and finally got it unloaded and back home late in the night.
With motorcycles, it’s all about learning from your mistakes. The shame of seizing the motor only made me more determined to get back riding and reclaim my pride. I posted a wanted ad on Craigslist and some random dude from Surrey had my exact motor, and would sell it to me for $100. He claimed that he got the motor from a friend of a friend, and was convinced that it worked. I took the risk even though it was covered in a white scale and looked like a piece of junk. There was a tiny shed in the backyard of our rented house, so I stored the motor there and hid out all winter, cleaning and polishing the surface. I probably even conversed with the motor, urging it to co-operate with me. I knew I had to make it look pretty, because if any of my friends saw what I had bought, in its original state, they would have laughed at me.
As the weather improved, I removed the tarp from my old Honda, having simply abandoned it on the street for the winter. I had received a decent tool kit from my Dad that Christmas, and proceeded to remove the motor by myself on the street. I was clueless, but determined. I figured that all I had to do was swap out the motor, and everything would be sweet again. Along lumbers this guy towards me, and in classic form he asks, “Do you know what you’re doing?” I promptly put him to work because I was just at the point where I had to lift out the old motor and insert the new one, which was waiting on my skateboard that I had used to wheel it onto the street. I made this guy pull out the motor and heave the new one onto a cinder block, then bolt it into position. This was a good lesson – if you ask a girl a snide comment, don’t think you’re getting away with it without being punished. Ha!
Not long after my friends Erika and Rhianon came along to help me with the exhaust pipes, and then came a mob of Night Fighter dudes to observe my progress. I had essentially done everything I could on my own to get the bike looking functional. And that’s when I realized that there was no kickstarter on this bike. The 1979 Honda Hawk was a bike intended to be lightweight and economical. You could either get it as a kickstart-only bike or one with an electric starter only. This new motor was of the variety of an electric starter, and my Honda was not equipped with the essential starter button or solenoid. Needless to say, one of the guys decided to bump start the bike down the alley and miracle of miracles, the bike came to life first try! It was ALIVE! I learned to bump start, and just loved it.
With this new found hope, I turned to Craigslist again for the appropriate parts to make my bike function as an electric starter. I recruited the help of the weirdest old British man (whom I suspect had a crush on me), who convinced me to wire in a doorbell. I gouged out a hole in my left side cover, we wired in the most sketchy set-up, and it actually worked. Meanwhile, a friend of mine named Michael was learning to weld and had a plan to make my bike way cooler… I mean louder! I had gone to a swap meet to find new exhaust pipes and some jerk had sold me a set, wrapping them together with masking tape to hide the rust holes. Michael proposed that he welds me a set of straight pipes instead, with custom baffles inside. I go for it, and end up with the loudest bike in the neighbourhood! I had also decided to chop off the ugly, plastic speedometer for a more minimal / illegal look, and remove the front indicator lights. To this day, I cannot believe that I was never pulled over by the police on that thing. It was a pure East Van Rat Bike.
The Honda lasted a few more seasons, now that I had new tires, maintained proper oil levels, and learned to bump start in any location. I replaced the wires on the doorbell starter twice, as it proved to be less than ideal. Whenever it rained, the water acted as an electric current, so I would be riding along in the rain and the bike would be making crazy ignition noises, as though I were pressing the starter button in. Not a good idea. It also caught fire on two occasions, but I think I’ll end my confessions there. I don’t love fixing motorcycles because like most people I would rather be riding, but at least all my mishaps have been opportunities to learn. I encourage everyone to take up riding motorcycles, make an idiot of yourself, and never forget your humble beginnings because the mistakes will and do continue.