My mother will never forgive me for risking my life riding with bikers addicted to speed
Every Friday night between 11 and 12, the owners of some of the city’s most powerful bikes converge in front of Pizza Pizza at Yonge and Dundas. NHere, the curious passerby will find dozens of gleaming machines, helmets hung from the mirrors and riders jauntily posing in brightly coloured leathers.
Tonight I’m among them, leaning self-consciously on my own bike, which suddenly seems less impressive. I’ve been lured onto the seat of a motorbike the way the cry of the wolf unsettles a lazy house dog curled up by the fire.
I didn’t simply go out and buy a bike as I might a pair of shoes. I agonized over it. I ached for it. I wrung my hands, contemplating the danger. And to whom does one turn for advice? You can’t expect anyone to say yes when the question is “Should I buy a motorcycle?”
The day I picked it up, I trembled with anticipation. When I started it up and it snarled to life, I felt a curious mixture of relief and anxiety. I belonged to the fraternity of riders, and other guys on sport bikes would give me a little wave with their left hand. Even motorcycle cops sometimes wave. But Harley guys never do.
Tonight I’m in the glow of the Pizza Pizza sign with the Midnight Riders (what I’ll call them for lack of an official name), many of whom are professionals by day and speed junkies by night.
And all of them ask that I not use their real names. Because these guys don’t want their bosses or clients to know what they do when the sun goes down. Again and again I hear “So-and-so doesn’t know that I ride.”
In my case, it happens to be my mother. Mothers seem to have the same perspective on motorcycles that Victorian moralists had on self-pleasuring: just say no. But what could be more appealing to a young man? So the first temptation of the motorcycle is the burning secret.
Then there’s the nature of the secret. The motorcyle is the accessory of choice for bad boys. Never mind that I was afraid to change lanes the day I picked up my bike. I still felt like the guy a father would forbid his daughters to date.
In Asia, I commuted on little 125cc bikes. They don’t use much gas and there’s always a parking spot. But small bikes aren’t cool. To ride a 125 in Toronto would be more than my ego could bear. The appropriate bike here is a sleek behemoth that advertises its aggression and illegal intent.
At 750, my bike is not particularly big, but it accelerates faster than any car that ever rolled out of a factory. Ever. It can do zero to 100 two full seconds faster than the fastest Lamborghini. It can hit 95 kilometres an hour in first. With a twist of the throttle, I can compress the landscape like the USS Enterprise going into warp drive.
But in this circle, my vehicle is humblingly slow. I am chagrined to hear it referred to as “a great starter bike.” Only to people who care whether I donate organs this summer does it look like the sleek, hulking behemoth of my imagination.
That is, it is no Suzuki Hayabusa, the fastest on the planet. That bike can run a quarter-mile a full two seconds faster than mine (while I can do it four seconds faster than a new Mustang GTO). At 1,300cc, it can easily triple the speed limit in Canada Suzuki claims it can do 321 klicks.
Still, of the thousands who ride Ontario, only a handful die every summer. According to Bob Ramsay of the Motorcycle and Moped Industry Council, there are approximately 125,000 bikes in the province (of which about 25 per cent are sport bikes) and about 50 crash fatally every year — that is, about .04 per cent of riders die.
Statistics show that it’s not riding that’s dangerous, it’s riding fast and out of control. That is, not only could most accidents be avoided, but many are deliberate flirtations with danger.
But riding fast is what the ethos of the sport bike is all about. No doubt it’s different for the guys with white beards who cruise on touring bikes, or the boomers who crowd into Harley Davidson dealerships to drop $30,000 on loud, slow bikes.
But you don’t buy a ZX-12 or a CBR1100XX unless you want to go fast. Really fast. And you don’t go fast unless you want to take appalling, unjustifiable risks. It’s probably wise to keep such a secret from your boss.
But secrets have to be shared, and everyone has to know just how fast his bike really is. And so riders line up their gleaming machines on Elm and talk to people who understand the nature of their compulsion.
But they don’t stay at Pizza Pizza all night. Riders rumble off to other locations, but eventually they gather again at Tim Horton’s at Weston Road and the 401. Its parking lot overlooks the on-ramp to the highway, so riders can watch each other shrieking by at heart-stopping speeds.
No one I talk to knows just how long riders have been congregating here. One guy I met has been going for 12 years. Another is a second-generation Midnight Rider he sometimes shows up with his father.
Many talk of the good old days, before the posers arrived. (I look away and gulp uncomfortably in acknowledgement that they may be referring to me.)
Apparently, the originators of the gathering were “real” racers, guys who raced at Shannonville and wanted to get together and talk about re-jetting their carbs and such. But they quickly attracted riders who simply wanted to race. And race they did.
The stories sound like the stuff of legend, and this is in part because many of them end with a fatal crash. They’re tales of onlookers waiting for brake lights that never come on, of inexperienced riders misjudging corners, and spectators scrambling to get away before the cops arrive.
The unanimous opinion is that this summer is particularly quiet, because last summer saw so many deaths on Friday nights. The one that seems to have shaken everyone ended with a guy decapitating himself with a telephone pole.
But not every accident ends in death, and many of the hardcore recommend that I drop my bike at least once, to learn its limits. I have little enthusiasm for this project.
On the night that I show up, I see no accidents. Indeed, I see no racing at all. Many guys say they wish someone would stir things up, but it doesn’t seem to happen. At one point a knot of bikes starts up in a cataract of noise, but when I ask them whether they’re going to race, they say no… they’re going home.
But they must live close together and be in an awful hurry to get to bed, for they roar away, screaming like an angry swarm of bionic hornets and doing throttle wheelies in the direction of the airport (where they race). I’m like the high-school geek brushed off by the cool kids with the assurance that there’s no party tonight.
Still, I can see the wheelies and burn-outs (smoking the back tire) and reverse wheelies (like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible) –things I would never attempt. I’m forced to admit I’m not among the initiates. The “real” riders seem to have formed the same opinion. When I pull out of the parking lot with my “tour guide,” he gives the group a little wave. They wave back. Wishing to be sociable, I give the same wave no response.
So while the Midnight Riders have no central authority, it’s clear that there is a pecking order. One must have a fast bike. At one point I overhear a cruelly amused chuckle: “That guy’s on a Ninja 500! Ha!”
It may well be that most of these guys commute safely and quietly. But when a pack of bikes roars to life, even the faint-hearted are capable of revving wildly. A group of about 35 bikes gathers at the exit of the lot, and I find myself in the middle of it. The noise is deafening. Then, at some invisible signal, the group howls out onto the ramp and moves down the 401. I have no choice but to keep pace, and I watch the speedometer climb to 200.
The pack flows around cars like white water around a rock in the middle of a river. One guy after another shoots forward, and another speeds up to catch him.
I’m thinking to myself, “This is not a good idea at all.” But I am reminded of a passage in Freud: “Life is impoverished, it loses in interest, when the highest stake in the game of living, life itself, may not be risked.” Sorry, Mom.
In all fatal motorcycle accidents in 1997:
* 50 per cent involved rider error
* 44 per cent occurred at night
* 36 per cent happened on the weekend
* 31 per cent involved no other vehicle
* 18 per cent involved drinking and driving
* 33 per cent of riders were under 25
* 8 per cent were not wearing helmets
Source: Ontario Road Safety Annual Report