It’s all good.
Until the six of them come up behind at – I’m guessing – well over 100 km/hr. We’re on the twistie that runs through Tatlock. It’s my first time riding it.
When I spot them in my left mirror, they’re going down a curved hill and into a little valley I’ve just negotiated at the speed limit (80 km/hr). I know they’re riding much faster than I am because I’ve been checking my mirrors constantly and a few seconds ago the road behind me had been empty.
Now there’s a pair of bright lights slightly ahead of four more in staggered formation. Sport bikes. Going licketysplit. My heart rate jumps. My hands tighten on the handlebar grips. I’m not sure what to do. I am a brand new motorcycle rider. And by brand new, I mean brand spanking new. As in less than eight weeks in the saddle new.
Here are the bare bones of the story so far: In late summer, I take a three-hour intro to motorcycling course. The bulk of it is theory. This is a motorcycle, here is the clutch lever, the front break lever, the back brake pedal, the choke; these are the handlebars. The friction zone is the space where the clutch engages and the motorcycle starts to move.
It’s a cursory introduction during which there are only about twenty minutes of actually riding a motorcycle. In first gear. In a parking lot. In fits and starts. At one point, I take off out of control at what to me is a terrifying speed (less than five km/hr no doubt). An instructor rescues me. I ask him if he thinks I can overcome my fear and ineptitude.
“Sure you can,” he says.
I believe him.
I buy a motorcycle. A new 2020 Yamaha V-Star 250; a good starter bike I’m told. Nimble, easy to handle. Has a low seat (a low seat being my main purchase criteria). I want to be able to put my feet on the ground because my balance isn’t what it used to be. I’m sixty-five after all.
I take a weekend course to get my M-2 motorcycle licence. I already have my M-1. Getting an M-1 is a matter of correctly answering sixty-five multiple guess questions in a Ministry of Transport written test. No riding component. Thus the weekend course in which I learn that two days isn’t long enough for me to learn how to ride a motorcycle. I don’t pass the practical on Sunday afternoon. Ostensibly because I’m too slow. I need more practice.
So I get more practice.
I coerce an acquaintance into riding my bike to a nearby parking lot; I follow in my car. I ride in straight lines and circles. I stop and go. I feather the clutch. Gear up. Gear down. Seemingly endlessly. The acquaintance coaches me. He’s been riding since he was in diapers. Owns three bikes. After several of these sessions, I graduate myself to touring my neighbourhood. No traffic.
The next step is a real road, where there is traffic. I ask two experienced rider friends to accompany me on my maiden voyage. We go to Blakeny, then on to Pakenham and back. It’s my first time to: 1) go any higher than second gear, and 2) go any faster than twenty kilometres an hour. The entire ride is thirty-five minutes max. I’m exhausted by the end of it. Relieved to get home in one piece. I come to a smooth-ish stop at the end of my short driveway. I hit the kill switch, get off my bike, raise the face shield on my helmet and burst into tears.
“What’s wrong?” my rider friends ask. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I blubber. “I’m just happy.”
They laugh. Give me a hug. Take pictures of me and my bike to celebrate the occasion.
The next day, after a few neighbourhood circuits, I do the same Almonte-Blakeny-Pakenham-Almonte loop on my own. I do it again the day after and again the day after the day after. My confidence builds. So do my skills. I venture further afield: to Hopetown, Burnstown, Calabogie. Sometimes I’m out for three hours or longer. Primarily alone. Then again, not.
Even riding solo, you’re never really alone on the road. There’s a kind of brotherhood/sisterhood amongst riders, a community. The majority ‘waves’ at each other in passing. They let go of the left handlebar to point gloved index and fore fingers earthward, palm facing the oncoming rider in a sort of upside down peace sign. There are variations, but this is the most common form of motorcycle wave in countries where people drive on the right-hand side of the road. It’s a mark of mutual respect and solidarity, a symbol of friendship and fellowship, a kind of celebration of the shared passion and love riders have for motorcycles, riding and being free. ‘I see you,’ it says. ‘I know you. Keep your wheels on the road. Stay safe.’
All in the blink of an eye.
There’s something special about waving. Something intangible, yet real. It’s an exchange between strangers who, on the surface, share nothing more than a brief moment in time and space as they cross paths on their way to somewhere else. It recognizes a connection, a bond above and beyond differences that will never be explored and are therefore unimportant and meaningless in the moment. It gives me a feeling of belonging, which is at once crazy and wonderful and unlike any other I have ever experienced. It’s one of the things I love best about riding.
Which brings me back to the twistie that goes through Tatlock on the way to or from Clayton and the 511 that, in turn, starts or ends in Perth or Calabogie depending on your destination.
I’ve seen many other motorcyclists while riding, but they’re always going in the opposite direction. And I’ve never had another rider, let alone six of them at once, come up behind me. The fact that it happens when I’m focussed on an uphill left hand corner on a winding road is unnerving.
Should I speed up? No. I’m comfortable at 80 k. Should I slow down? No. That will make them even more miserable. I’m interrupting their fun. No need to make it worse. Better to stay the course, at least until we get past the corner and to the top of the hill. It must be obvious to them by my speed, my bike and the way I’m riding it that I’m a novice. As usual, I’m wearing a fluorescent silver and pink safety vest the straps of which form an X across my back. The antithesis of cool gear. I may as well have a neon sign on my helmet flashing ‘NEW RIDER.’
They’re experienced. They won’t pass on a corner going up a hill. It’s too dangerous. I check my mirror again. The two at the front of the pack are glued to my tail. Then: what the fuck? Zzzzzzoom. Zzzzzzooom. They pass me on the left, torsos to gas tanks, one right after the other. We’re halfway up the hill. Holy shit. Please let there be no one coming over the rise. Please. My heart gallops in my chest. When I get to the top, I roll off the throttle slightly. There’s another corner, this one to the right. And then another. And another after that. The four remaining riders stick close behind me for several kilometers. When we finally come to a patch of comparatively straight road, they too pass – vroooommm, vrooommm, vrooommm, vrooomm – as if on a race track.
Their taillights disappear over the next rise. By the time I get to the crest, they’re nowhere in sight. My body relaxes into my ride. I’m glad that’s over. I say a silent prayer for no more company. Somebody listens. I’m alone on the road save for the afternoon sun and the trees on either side until I get to Clayton ten minutes later.
I turn into the space in front of the General Store that sits at the apex of a three-way intersection. No signal light. No stop sign even. It’s a village. None required. I coast to a standstill, lift the gear lever up a half a notch into neutral, flick the kickstand to the ground. I reach down to the key beside my left knee and switch it to the ‘off’ position.
Breathe in. Exhale. Repeat. Take a walk around the parking lot.
Several days and as many uneventful rides later, I’m on the Appleton sideroad going from the roundabout on the edge of Almonte toward the #7, a section of the TransCanada highway that runs through Carleton Place, then Perth, and then, presumably, the rest of the country. Just as it was my initiation to the Clayton twistie, so it is my first time riding the Appleton sideroad – as least as the pilot of my own motorcycle.
I rode it many times as a passenger on the back of a Kawasaki Vulcan Nomad 1700 in the summer of 2020. It was one of my favourite places to go at the time, not because of its curve appeal – the road is relatively straight and flat – but because of the countryside it runs through.
Rural Ontario is beautiful. Mixed farms border this particular stretch of road where there’s lots to see: grazing horses and cattle, cornfields, farm gardens, farmhouses, farm equipment, even the occasional farmer. For some reason, the drivers, riders and cyclists that use the road tend to be respectful. Or at least that’s how it feels to me. I loved riding pillion here, but I put off returning on my own. I don’t want to take a trip down memory lane. I’m afraid it might be too painful. So I avoid it. Until this afternoon.
It’s a stunning fall day. Sunny. A few skinny clouds flatten themselves against a pale blue sky. The air is still, which is good. Sometimes there’s a strong crosswind on the Appleton side road. You wouldn’t notice it in a car, but you do on a motorcycle. Traffic is thin; my heart is fat and full. There are a couple of long, wide turns leading up to the junction with the 7. I will find out months later that these are called ‘sweepers.’ I’m in the middle of the second, which sweeps (ha!) through a cornfield. Mirror check.
Two big bikes are coming into the curve about a hundred and fifty meters behind me. I haven’t seen them before, just as I hadn’t seen the half dozen the other day, so again I know they’re going faster than me. I decide to stay in the left track and ride my ride as I had on the road to Clayton. It doesn’t take them long to catch me up. I wonder when they’re going to pass. The wondering produces a strip of tension across my shoulders.
The rows of golden corn stalks drying in the field on the left block the view of the end of the curve, and there’s a double yellow line down the middle of the road. Still, it would be a lot safer passing here than it was where the sport bike riders scared the daylights out of me. These two could easily and safely go by me right now. They don’t. They hang back.
We lean gently through the rest of the wide turn together. A single broken line replaces the double as soon as the road straightens. Another mirror check. The front bike’s left signal is blinking. He pulls out; passes. When he’s at 10 o’clock, I see he’s wearing black leathers and a dull black helmet that sits above his ears. His chap-clad legs stretch out to the front, boots aimed skyward on highway pegs. His arms reach up to shoulder-height handlebars. A big bike, as I had thought. Probably a Harley. As soon as he’s well past, he traverses into the left track in front of me, and then he’s away.
The second rider follows suit. I see him in my mirror first, then beside me, then at eleven o’clock and then he too traverses back into the left track ahead. He is a large man. His bike is big too; and he is also outfitted in black leather. But, unlike his buddy, or the Clayton twistie six pack, he doesn’t leave me behind in a proverbial cloud of dust.
He slows to match my pace. Oh man. What the fuck now? My heart skips a beat. It skips another as his left hand leaves his handlebar. He lowers it and points his index and middle fingers toward the road in an inverted V, palm facing me, thumb tucked in.
One mississippi, two mississippi, three mississippi. He keeps his fingers to the road. Maintains his reduced speed. Four mississippi. It feels more like a salute than a wave. Suddenly everything is in slow motion. As if I’m in a movie. Five mississippi. Wave back you fool. Wave back!
I don’t know if he sees me reciprocate. Maybe my hand is too small to be visible in the glare of my headlight. Maybe it’s a coincidence that two heartbeats after I scissor my fingers down, he lifts his back up to the handlebar grip.
He may or may not have seen my wave. But I know for sure he has seen me. As sure as I know his right hand is rolling hard on the throttle when his bike surges ahead in a burst of speed and he is gone.
Dear second of two riders who passed me on the Appleton sideroad and who slowed to wave to me in October 2021,
© 2021 Susan Macaulay. I invite you to share my poetry and posts widely, but please do not reprint, reblog or copy and paste them in their entirety without my permission. Thank you.