Born To Ride

//Born To Ride

Born To Ride

How do you spell freedom? Me? B-I-K-E.

Not only do I lose myself while pedaling, I’m also spending time in nature, so it’s a plus, plus.

My childhood memories of learning to ride are scant, but I do recall an idyllic fall day spent on my banana seat, tired legs spinning madly through a powerful wind. I was 8 or 9, a girlfriend was with me, probably Wendy, but I’ll be darned if I can picture her facial expressions that day, what she was wearing, what her bike looked like. I was wearing a favourite green long-sleeved shirt – Mom tended to pick green for me, I have green eyes – and I came home with hair tangled like the mane of a wild prairie horse (no helmets back then). And I realize, as I write this, that freedom, for me anyway, comes coupled with a lack of destination and time constraints. We turned this way and that, according to our hearts’ desire, in a day that stretched out before us like taffy, clouds scuttling overhead like a gaggle of geese.

My family moved shortly after that, to what is best described as a country subdivision, and I don’t recall riding my bike much there. Perhaps I outgrew it. Dad taught me how to ride two wheels of a different sort – motorcycles – first a red Honda 50 cc, then a blue Honda 70 cc. The dirt bikes continued to grow, but by then I was busy with school, gymnastics and babysitting; my older brother became the sole easy rider of the family.

Those motorcycle riding skills came in handy, though, after I was first married, living in the country and without a functional vehicle. It was summer. I dressed appropriately, hopped on my husband Hugh’s Honda 750 cc Super Sport, kicked it over, and cruised carefully on quiet country roads for 15 minutes to the family business, where I was working. After I drove his bike all summer, Hugh suggested I cruise my butt on down to the Ministry of Transportation (MOT) and take the motorcycle driving test. You know, make things legal. Which, to be honest, was an odd thing coming from Hugh, as he had little use for rules.

I could barely touch the ground when I’d stop with the Super Sport, so Hugh arranged for me to borrow a friend’s bike, which was smaller. I picked it up on the way into the city, thinking I’d be able to practice my stops and starts on Highbury Avenue, as I’d be taking it from one end to the other, but wouldn’t you know it? That was the one time every single traffic light was green.

I passed! Got that “M” on my license. To be clear, though, the motorcycle test was pretty basic in the early 80s: a short cruise around a few pylons in the MOT parking lot.

A couple of decades – and three kids and several mini-vans later – the topic of a Friday the 13th motorcycle ride to Pt. Dover came up. What started in 1981 with a guy meeting a few buddies at a bar in town on November 13th had turned into an event on every Friday the 13th with pre-pandemic numbers of around 100,000 people.

Although Hugh would be out of town on the date, October 13th, he reminded me of that “M” on my license. Hugh had a bike by then, a Honda with so many ccs I certainly couldn’t drive it. The suggestion was made that I could ride a friend’s smaller bike and the friend could ride Hugh’s. I tried it out in his subdivision and felt pretty confident I could handle it. Still, it’d been a long time since I’d ridden and we’d be on our bikes for a while, traveling over 100 km, with other riders too. I dressed in layers and leather and off we went under grey skies.

I would not call it a freedom ride. The heart was banging away, the hands sweating under the gloves. I kept an eye on all traffic and all other riders, being careful to control my own machine and not be sucked into others’ actions that might be dangerous. Shifting gears properly: down, up, up, up. Applying appropriate pressure to the brakes, while also remembering which was front, which back. Leaning on the curves, but not taking them too fast or leaning too much. It’s a lot to think about all at once.

Then? We entered this golden back road where the crisp nostalgic scent of fall was pervasive. Leaves glowing all around. Above, below. Falling. Yellow rain. Fractals of sunshine, like alchemy, transforming lead into molten gold. I’d grown comfortable with the bike, was shifting and leaning as one with the group. My pounding heart soared like an eagle.

That was before we stopped for fuel and I did not have a clue how to open the tank, fill it up. Hint: there’s a key.

Pt. Dover was loud, crowded and leather-scented, the cornucopia of bikes a feast for the eyes. We were cold and tired when we got home late that afternoon, before darkness set in.

Hugh helped me buy my own bike after that. He and I enjoyed many rides together; the last one I recall vividly was on his 46thbirthday. I’d given him a motorcycle rain suit and as luck would have it, there was rain in the forecast. One drop fell and he was over to the side of the road donning that suit. We meandered the countryside with no time constraints, visiting obscure furniture stores in a futile search for a coffee table, ending up at our cottage in Grand Bend for the night.

That was his last birthday, so that rain suit didn’t get much wear and tear. I rode for several years without him, which I got used to, but felt weird at first. He usually led – it made me feel safe – and he had this unique way of pointing, on the low diagonal, with the index finger of his left hand, to turn. I knew it was wrong, illegal. He should just use his blinker, right? Did I mention about Hugh and rules? It’s funny, the little things you miss when someone leaves you.

I gave up the motorcycle several years ago, after some horrific local motorcycle accidents, after a horrific one a girlfriend had. She survived, but was pretty banged up.

The other day, my husband B and I were doing an early morning bicycle ride on the Thames Valley Parkway. I was pedaling like mad to keep up to him, leg muscles straining, shifting gears, angling my body for the turns, when a single golden leaf came floating down, smacked me in the face. Ah. October. A fractal of sunshine piercing the morning gloom.

I caught up to B. He didn’t do it then – we were curving to the right after the tunnel – but I knew the next time we’d turn left? He’d point, in that familiar way, on the low diagonal, with the index finger of his left hand, to let me know.



  1. Brad Boyd October 23, 2021 at 11:19 am - Reply

    Hey Rita, thanks for bringing me down memory lane about my early bike rides with friends, which also became motorcycles and then mini-vans too. We are just back from Algonquin Park where some of the trails are filled with 6 inches of leaves and beautiful scenery. We would swish, swish through the leaves as we walked along.

    Looks like you are riding on the G to G bike trail!. Julie and I recognize this stop in your picture at the Kissing Bridge in West Montrose!

    Thanks for writing Born To Ride!

    • Rita Hartley October 23, 2021 at 1:07 pm - Reply

      Thanks so much for reading and sharing your “two wheel” (and dang it, mini-van) memories with me! As much as fall challenges me – mostly due to the loss of summer – the “swish, swish” of leaves sure is wonderful, isn’t it?

      And you are correct – that was the G to G last year. Who knew Ontario had a covered bridge?

      Take care! R

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