The Motorcycle Diaries, Part I

I've had my motorcycle license ever since I was 16. A decade ago, it was ridiculously easy to get a license - there were no different 'classes' based on the size or speed of the bike, and I never once had to pass a road test. I had to do a circuit exam consisting of riding a cone slalom in a crazy eight figure, doing a U-Turn, and braking in a short distance. I failed the first time, because my test bike sputtered out and stalled. The second time - two weeks and fifteen bucks later, if memory serves - I passed, and that same day I was able to go out and buy any bike I wanted, such as a 600cc (engine size is measure in Cubic Centimeters. Bigger often - but not always - equals faster and heavier) sports bike, which these days are basically racing motorcycle intended for the track but made street legal by the addition of turn signals and a license plate holder. Instead, though, I waited, and waited, and waited. Years went by, and while I almost bought the then-new Ducati Monster, I foolishly chose instead to put my hard-earned money into my then-girlfriend savings. In retrospect, Ducati is greater than savings, every time.

Ducati Monster

Fast forward to 12 years later. My obsession with muscle cars is long dead, as my '82 Trans Am wannabe drag-racer lies dormant in the garage. The Hyundai Avante I modded up to rally spec was sold to a nice girl a few blocks from where I live (she promptly skidded it into a ditch - no one was hurt), and although I'd put in thousands of miles and hours on two wheels, all of that has been on my trusty Marin mountain bike, divided pretty much equally between travel cycling and commuting from the suburbs into downtown Montreal and back. I never really got rid of the 'bug' that was the reason for getting my motorcycle permit in the first place, and every time I'd look at my driver's license for whatever reason, I'd always linger a little longer on that 'Classe 6 - Toute Motocyclette' note, right above the 'Classe 4 - Autobus, minibus, taxi' one (which is a story for another time, another blog post). Finally, driving home one dark evening late last year, I decided that enough was enough: I was going to buy a motorcycle.

A few minutes later, it started snowing.

Ok, so I'd have to wait 6 months before getting a bike. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, since the economy tanked and sent prices spiraling downward. I spent that time reading up, asking questions on forums (biker forums like ACD are where I've met the nicest folks on any online social network, hands down), watching footage of motorcycle accidents on YouTube to sensitize myself, and browsing reviews of the best beginner bikes. I discovered BikeExif, a gorgeous pairing of one of my oldest loves (photography) with one of my newest (motorcycles). I found out that the small Japanese custom bike shops make some of the most insanely beautiful, anime-inspired bikes you can dream up (hopefully one day the Japanese will also learn how to make a video game protagonist who isn't a totally unlikable moron).

jap custom

I'm a bit of an adrenaline junkie, so with that in mind it was imperative that I start off with a smaller bike than the aforementioned racing 600s, lest I find myself wrapped around a telephone pole. I wasn't even sure whether I wanted a sports bike, a cruiser, a standard, or something else. I was pretty sure I wanted something sporty-ish but with a more comfortable riding position than most sports bikes which have you lying on your stomach. I hadn't really considered bigger cruisers like Harleys before, but their new lineup - namely the new Iron 883 - appealed to me in a way that you can't quite describe, like when you meet that quirky girl who your friends think is kinda just alright looking while you can't help but stare at her like she's the hottest thing since Mercury. That, and the fact that the HD folks know that nostalgia that started before your time is the easiest to market. And I'm nothing if not a sucker for pre-Steve-era nostalgia.

In the end, though, I stuck with my first choice and went for a sporty-ish, standard, beginner's bike. I wasn't about to drop nine large on something that I wasn't even sure I'd end up wanting. I wasn't going to start on a 600cc+ race bike and launch myself into oncoming traffic the moment I left the lot. I had narrowed it down to three different bikes, all recommended as good learner's bikes and all pretty cool-looking. The choice, in the end, came down to hearing feedback from current owners, trying them out at the Salon Moto de Montreal, and visiting the dealerships to find one whose service wasn't shittier than a porta-potty at a laxatives convention. I've learned that motorcycle dealerships in Montreal are filled with salesmen - yes, they are mostly men - whose collective sleezeballiness rivals that of their brethren in the used car business. They either operate in the “you-should-buy-this-bike-instead-because-it's-faster-and-costs-$4k-more-don't-be-a-pussy” range or they completely ignore you when they realize that you're not here to buy a $20,000 monstrosity of a cruiser replete with heated earmuffs, satellite radio and a DVD player. I even had one of those “Buy it now or else I can't give you the same price” things pulled on me with at a Suzuki dealership. Dude, I'm Middle Eastern. We fucking invented shady sales pressure tactics. That shit don't work on me. In the end, the three bikes I was looking at were the Buell Blast, the Johnny Pag FX-3, and the Hyosung GT 250.

buell, pag, hyosung

Buell (the company) is closely affiliated with Harley Davidson, so when the Internets told me that the only used Buell Blast in town was at a nearby Harley dealership, I went with credit card in hand, ready to pick it up. I stood there, ready to pick it up, for what amounted to 45 minutes, while the lone salesman on duty shot the shit with the only other customer in the place, a big burly goatee'd Harley guy who was evidently friends or something with him. I left, wrote an email to the place telling them about my experience, and got a call from the owner the next day apologizing and saying that they've been really busy and don't have enough salesfolks on the floor. I reminded her that there was only one other person there and that the salesguy didn't even acknowledge me. I was waiting for her to offer me a massive discount or a date or something, but neither of those materialized and so I forgot about the Buell.

The history and explanations of the different bikes I was considering is well outside the scope of this post (and my readership's interest here, I imagine), but the Johnny Pag appealed to me because it was from a relatively new company that seemed intent on getting itself taken seriously in the market, was very uniquely styled (it was the best looking bike of the bunch, I admit), and everyone I've read who owns one, loves it. However, the only dealership for it was an hour and a half out of the city, and I couldn't shake the possibility of having a problem with the bike and somehow having to get it all the way back to the dealer, who was professional and friendly but no more than that. He didn't do much to reassure my concerns about buying and maintaining my first bike, so in the end I left it behind. It also had a 6 month warranty, which is short when compared to the Hyosung's 2 years.

That brought me to Zone Moto and the Hyosung GT 250. They had this too-good-to-be-true promotion with previous-model bikes from Hyosung's show fleet being sold at deep discounts with the 2 year warranty. They had one left in stock. I visited with a friend, then the next day, I came in and bought it. I wasn't crazy about the color scheme, but I figured, what the hell, this is my first bike, it's a great deal, and I'll probably upgrade within a year. Turns out, the color scheme grew on me and I wouldn't be surprised if I kept this bike for well over a year. The dealer / salesman I bought from was nice, very busy / running around all the time, but fairly apologetic about it and he threw in some nice freebies (I got a Z1R helmet for about half its market price, and a couple free mods he threw in) and seemed like a decent guy. Compared to my other experiences at dealerships, I figure that this was as good as it gets in terms of motorcycle shopping.

It was delivered on an amazingly sunny and warm Saturday, the first time I've seen the weather so clement in Quebec in March. I spent my time sitting on the front porch reading the user manual - something I pretty much never, ever do with anything else I buy - getting acquainted with the bike in front of my house, while the neighborhood kinds gathered around it in awe. I did things the right way, first going around the block, then around the 'hood, then a bit further, etc. After a month now I'm taking it on Decarie and other highways where the limit is 70Km/h (I don't want to go faster than that since I'm still breaking in the engine - for the first 1000km, that means no fast driving, no hard acceleration, no high speeds and no racing away from stoplights, either :( ), driving in the rain, and slowly building my confidence. Reading and watching tutorials about riding over the winter really helped me get prepared, and the whole winter driving my car was spent imagining I was on a bike. I'd be much more aware of the traffic around me, I'd take care to notice things more, increased my distances between vehicles, “leaned” into turns (particularly amusing to people in other cars), and honked far more often to make sure I was heard. Now that I was on my bike, these good habits proved invaluable in building my confidence to focus on developing / practicing my riding skills. Most importantly, though, and the reason I got a bike in the first place, is that every time I'm on it, I say to myself “Oh My God I'm going so fast and I'm on two wheels this is so friggin' cool Oh My God!”.

And cool it is. While the Z1R helmet that came with the bike is alright, I'm going to use it as a spare because I had my eyes set on this model from Nexx in Italy, which I ended spending more on that I wish to disclose. I haven't seen anyone else with this helmet, and it's something that people stop and stare it when I'm at a stoplight. I feel like a cross between a medieval knight and a starfighter pilot, and that's a good thing. Combined with my Kevlar armored / padded leather Icon jacket, pants, gloves and boots, I feel far more confident riding than I would in the t-shirt-and-shorts that I can't believe seeing on some bikers. I love my outfit as much as my bike, and I love that Nexx Helmet. I used to often make fun of douchebags walking about everywhere with a bluetooth earpiece, since it looks ridiculous and self-important, but now I guess it seems I've become similar myself, walking into joints with my color-coordinated Icon jacket and Nexx helmet tucked under my arm, inevitably with a big grin on my face. Actually, on second thought that's not douchebaggy at all - I mean come on, let's kick the ballistics here; motorcycle helmet beats bluetooth headset, every time.

nexxx30 helmet

As with anything else - traveling to an exotic country , starting a new job, becoming a part of any community - becoming a motorcyclist causes you to see things (namely, traffic) from a wholly different perspective. You begin, subconsciously, to monitor the flow of traffic, continuously build a map of the vehicles around you, and pay special heed to road signs, warning and speed limits. This is completely natural and expected, since being on a motorcycle is one of the purest forms of synergy you can have with the road. There are no cupholders, no conversations to keep track of, no cruise control, no CDs to fiddle with. There's just you, your bike, the road, and the other cars - “cages” - and when you combine this lack of distractions with the inherent vulnerabilities you have on a bike vs. being in a car, you end up with something that is far more like a sport than a commute. That's a good comparison - being in a car is more like being a spectator to the events going on on the road around you, while being on a motorcycle forces you to be a more active participant. Although I'm still breaking in the engine, and the bike is 'only' a 250cc, it already feels very quick and keeps up with traffic effortlessly. It doesn't hurt that I'm down to nearly 160lbs, from about 190lbs after my little vixen of an ex-girlfriend's now personal trainer's crazy mass-gaining program.

Minus a few issues with the bike registration (because it was a fleet bike from Hyosung there is some weirdness with the plates, I'm still running temp plates for over a month now), everything's been more than smooth. This has probably been the most gratifying purchase that I've ever made for myself. I'm really enjoying riding and hope to do it for a long time to come. Just as much as riding, though, I'm enjoying being a “rider”. The whole mystique that comes with the bike just oozes cool and I'm thrilled to be a part of it. My ex personal trainer keeps begging for a ride, but it looks like she's going to have to get in line... :D

my bike


Thursday, April 23rd, 2009
alison's picture

I used to waltz out of the British Library with a motorcycle helmet under my arm. It felt undeniably cool (even if I was just a pillion). Congrats on the new toy, and ride safe and happy!

Friday, April 24th, 2009
stevenmansour's picture

Thanks Alison. I think the combination of the helmet plus the British Library would up my cool quotient way high. For now I'll have to content myself with waltzing out of Patati Patata... ;)

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