By Tom Ruttan
CYCLE CANADA - APRIL, 2002
The bike's passenger seat swept up just enough that I
could see over my father's shoulders. That seat was my throne. My dad and I
traveled many backroads together...searching for the ones we had never found
before. Traveling these roads just to see where they went. Never in a rush, just
be home by supper.
I remember wandering down a backroad with my father, sitting on my throne watching the trees whiz by, feeling the rumble of our bike beneath us like a giant contented cat. A motorcycle came over a hill towards us and as it went by, my father threw up his clutch hand and gave a little wave. The other bike waved back with the same friendly swing of his left wrist.
I tapped my dad on the shoulder, which was our signal that I wanted to say something. He cocked his head back slightly while keeping his eyes ahead...
I yelled, "Did you know him?"
"You waved at him...who was that?"
"I don't know. Just another guy on a bike....so I waved."
"You just do...it's important."
Later, when we had stopped for ice cream, I asked him why it was so important to wave to other bikers. My dad tried to explain how the wave demonstrated comradeship and a mutual understanding of what it was to enjoy riding a motorcycle. He looked for the words to describe how almost all bikers struggled with the same things like cold, rain, heat, wind, and drivers who didn't see them, but how riding remained an almost pure pleasure.
I was young then and I am not sure that I really understood what he was trying to get across, but it was a beginning of something. Afterwards, I always waved along with my dad whenever we passed other bikes.
I remember one cold October morning when the clouds were heavy and dark, giving us another clue that winter was heading in from just over the horizon. My dad and I were warm inside our car as we headed to a friends house. Rounding a corner, we saw a motorcycle parked on the shoulder of the road. Past the bike, we saw the rider walking thru the ditch, scouring along thru the tall grass, crowned with a touch of frost. Dad pulled over and backed up to where the bike stood.
I asked Dad..."Who's that?"
"Don't know" he replied..."but he seems to have lost something. Maybe we can give him a hand."
We left the car and wandered thru the tall grass ditch to the biker. He said that he had been pulling on his gloves as he rode, and that he had lost one. The three of us spent some time combing the ditch, but all we found were empty cans and bottles.
My dad then turned and headed back to the car and opened the trunk. He rummaged thru various tools, oil containers, and this and that until he found an old pair of crumpled up leather gloves. He continued looking until he found an old catalogue. I understood what he was doing with the gloves....but I had no idea what he needed with the catalogue.
"Here's some gloves for you" my dad said as he handed them to the rider..."and I brought you a catalogue as well."
"Thanks"..I really appreciate it." He reached into his hip pocket and pulled out an old chain wallet.
"Lemme give you some money for the gloves" he said.
"No thanks" dad replied as he handed them to the rider. "They're not worth anything and they're old anyway".
The biker smiled. "Thanks a lot."
He pulled the old gloves on and unzipped his jacket. I watched as my dad handed him the catalogue and the biker slipped it inside his coat. He jostled it around, positioning it up high, centered, and then zipped it up. I remembered now making sense of why my dad had given him the catalogue. It would keep him a bit warmer. After wishing the biker well, my dad and I left him warming up his bike.
Two weeks later, the biker came to our home and returned my father's gloves. He had found the address on the catalogue. Neither my father nor the biker seemed to think that my dad stopping at the side of the road for a stranger and giving him a pair of gloves, and that the stranger making sure that the gloves were returned, were events out of the ordinary for people who rode motorcycles. For me, it was another subtle lesson.
It was spring of the next year when I was sitting high on my throne, watching the farm fields slip by when I saw two bikes coming towards us. As they rumbled past, my dad and I waved, but the other bikers kept their sunglasses locked straight ahead and did not acknowledge us. I remember thinking that they must have seen us because our waves were too obvious to miss. Why didn't they wave back? I thought all bikers waved at one another.....
I tapped my dad on the shoulder and yelled..."How come they didn't wave back?"
"Don't know. Sometimes they don't."
I remember feeling very puzzled. Why wouldn't someone wave back?
The next summer, I was finally old enough to learn to ride a motorcycle with a clutch. Many an afternoon were spent on a country lane beside our home, kicking and kicking to start my dad's old 1955 BSA. When it would finally come to a sputtering start, my concentration would grow to a sharp focus, as I tried to let out the clutch slowly enough, and bring us to a smooth take off. More often than not, I would lurch forward.....and begin to attempt to kick start the motor again.
Eventually, I got my own motorcycle license, and began wandering the backroads on my own. I found myself stopping along sideroads if I saw another biker alone, just to check and see if he needed help.......and I continued to wave at other riders.
But I remained focused as to why some riders never waved back. It left me with almost a feeling of rejection, as if I were reaching to shake someone's hand, but they kept their arm hanging by their side.
I began to canvass my friends about waving. I talked with people at biker events, asking what they thought. Most of the old riders told me they waved to other bikers and often initiated the friendly air handshake as they passed one another.
I did meet some riders though, who told me that they did not wave to other riders because they felt that they were different from other bikers. They felt that they were a "breed apart". One guy told me in rather colorful language, that he did not "wave to no wussies". He went on to say that his kind of bikers were tough, independent, and they did not require or want the help of anyone, whether they rode a bike or not.
I suspected that there were some people who bought a bike because they wanted to purchase an image of being tougher, more independent, a not-putting-up-with-anyone's-crap kind of person, but I didn't think that this was typical of most riders.
People buy bikes for different reasons. Some will be quick to tell you what make it is, how much they paid for it, or how fast it will go. Brand loyalty is going to be strong for some people whether they have a Harley, Ford, Sony, or whatever... Some people want to buy an image and try to purchase another person's perception of them. But it can't be done.
Still, there is a group of people who ride bikes who truly are a breed apart. They appreciate both the engineering and the artistry in the machines they ride. Their bikes become part of who they are and how they define themselves to themselves alone.
They don't care what other people think. They don't care
if anyone knows how much they paid for their bike or how fast it goes. The bike
means something to them that nothing else does. They ride for themselves and not
for anyone else. They don't care whether anyone knows they have a bike. They may
not be able to find words to describe what it means to ride, but they still
know. They may not be able to describe what it means to feel the smooth
acceleration and the strength beneath them. But they understand.
These are the riders who park their bikes, begin to walk away and then stop. They turn and look back. They see something when they look at their bikes that you might not. Something more complex, something that is almost secret, sensed rather than known. They see their passion. They see a part of themselves.
These are the riders who understand why they wave to other motorcyclists. They savor the wave. It symbolizes connection between riders, and if they saw you and your bike on the side of the road, they would stop to help and might not ask your name. They understand what you are up against every time you take your bike on the road.....the drivers that don't see you, the ones that cut you off or tailgate you, the potholes that lie in waiting. The rain. The cold.
I have been shivering and sweating on a bike for more than 40 years. Most of the riders that pass give me a supportive wave. I love it when I see a younger rider on a "crotch rocket" scream past me and wave. New riders carrying on the traditions.
I will continue in my attempts to get every biker just a little closer to one another with a simple wave. And if they do not wave back when I extend my hand into the breeze as I pass them, I will smile a little more. Maybe they're just mistaken about who is a "breed apart."