Backpack

BORN TO BE MILD

A monthly report on personal health, life and leisure

D’ARCY JENISH August 22 1994
Backpack

BORN TO BE MILD

A monthly report on personal health, life and leisure

D’ARCY JENISH August 22 1994

BORN TO BE MILD

Backpack

LEISURE

A monthly report on personal health, life and leisure

Bob Miller and half a dozen friends, all prosperous businessmen in their mid-40s, are sitting in Miller’s 33-foot air-conditioned motor home on a Saturday afternoon—a safe distance from the raucous scene outside on the fairgrounds at Fenelon Falls,

Ont. More than 3,700 motorcyclists have rolled into the tiny resort town, 130 km northeast of Toronto, for a weekend charity event. With bikers outnumbering local residents by more than 2:1, the fairgrounds have become a giant campground, and the gathering could pass for a Hell’s Angels convention. It is not the type of crowd that usually attracts people like Miller and his friends—high-rolling Toronto businessmen who own, among other things, golf courses, an advertising agency and a home-security company. But they also own gleaming new Harley-Davidsons, which are parked outside Miller’s motor home. Within the motorcycling fraternity, riders like Miller are known as RUBs—rich urban bikers. “Five years ago, I wouldn’t have thought of owning a Harley,” says Miller. “Now, all kinds of guys are riding them. Doctors, lawyers, factory workers, and, hey, there’s still some scary guys on these things.”

For several decades, beginning in the late 1940s, HarleyDavidsons and several other big bikes, including Nortons and Triumphs, were known primarily as the motorcycles of choice of the scary guys—outlaw bikers like the Hell’s Angels. But over the past five years, North American sales of bikes with engines exceeding 750 c.c. have soared, partly due to the purchasing power of the RUBs—whose ranks include middle-aged businessmen, movie stars, professional athletes and pop musicians. Sales this year are expected to surpass 190,000 units, up almost 20 per cent since 1991.

Some of those buyers are captivated by the big bike’s lingering image as a machine for rebels, mavericks and free spirits. Others are hoping to relive their own youthful experiences on motorcycles, now that they have raised their families and paid for their homes. Still others say they get a wind-in-the-face rush from motorcycling that helps them unwind, like nothing else, from high-pressure jobs. “It’s a whole different world out on a bike,” says Miller. “It just soothes you.”

The new popularity of big bikes is evident from the roster of prominent Canadians who ride them. Toronto Maple Leafs coach Pat Bums owns two, including one that he keeps at his summer home in Magog, Que., and refers to as his “Magog bar-hopper.” Leaf centre Doug Gilmour has a customized 1994 bike worth $27,000 and recently bought a smaller 1992 model for his girlfriend. Singer k.d. lang owns an olive-green 1992 bike that is designed to look like a motorcycle from the 1930s. Toronto businessman Colin Watson, president of Rogers Cablesystems Ltd., and Vancouver’s Peter Thomas, founder of Century 21, a Canadian real estate chain, both ride big motorcycles.

The famous, and the merely wealthy, have helped rehabilitate the image of a product long associated in books, movies and real life with mayhem and lawlessness. Hollywood brought the rebel motorcyclist to the silver screen in the 1953 movie The Wild Ones,

For those who can afford them, big bikes are the way to unwind

which featured Marlon Brando and was based on a notorious biker riot that occurred in the small farming community of Hollister, Calif., on July 4,1947. In 1969, the movie Easy Rider, starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson, depicted motorcyclists as dope-smoking hippies thumbing their noses at the establishment. And in his 1967 book Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, maverick journalist Hunter S. Thompson, himself a biker, wrote: “You’ve got to see an outlaw straddle his bike. His face changes, his whole bearing radiates confidence and authority.”

The parking lot behind the municipal arena and recreation complex in Pickering, a bedroom community east of Toronto, is packed with hundreds of motorcycles on a summer Saturday morning. Toronto-area bikers are assembling to begin the Ride For Sight, the annual charity ride to Fenelon Falls, held to raise money for research into retinitis pigmentosa, which causes tunnel vision and eventually blindness. There are machines of every description: off-road dirt bikes; sleek Japanese bikes, loaded with racetrack technology and capable of speeds as high as 260 km/h; and bulky touring motorcycles.

Over by the edge of the parking lot, Bob Miller and his friends have parked their motorcycles amid a pack of Harleys. Their bikes all have 1,340-c.c. engines—almost as large as the engines in many small cars—and were priced at $18,000 to $20,000 in the showroom. By comparison, similarly sized Japanese bikes, manufactured by Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha or Kawasaki, cost only about half as much as the Harleys, even though they are generally faster.

But rich urban bikers are looking for more than speed and high-tech performance, two things for which the Japanese bikes are renowned. They also want bikes they can customize; some owners spend as much as $12,000 on options and accessories. Brian Larter, 42, a biker who owns an advertising company and participated in the Pickering to Fenelon Falls charity ride with Miller’s group, notes that almost every

element of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, from the handlebars and the gas tank to the seats, fenders and tires, can be changed or modified. “But I’m not going to tell you how much I spent on options,” Larter says with a chuckle, “because my wife might read this.”

In fact, American-made bikes have become prohibitively expensive for many riders. One such disappointed enthusiast is AÍ Matthews, a 50-year-old self-employed musician from Ajax, just east of Pickering. While Miller, Larter and their friends are getting ready to ride, Matthews strolled over for a glance at their bikes with his girlfriend, Dianne Dickson. As a young man, he rode Japanese and German motorcycles, but he had dreamed of owning a Harley from the day an uncle took him for a ride on one when he was five years old. Finally, in 1991, he managed to buy one. Last winter, however, money problems forced him to sell.

“They’re beautiful, just beautiful,” Matthews says to Dickson. “It’s eating my heart out just looking at them. It took me 45 years to get one, and now it’s all over.”

“Yeah, but at least you got there, AÍ,” she says. “That’s the main thing.” _

After a two-hour ride through the gently rolling countryside of central Ontario, the Ride for Sight cavalcade reaches Fenelon Falls in the early afternoon. For Miller and his fellow RUBs, gathered in his motor home, it is time to relax and talk motorcycles. They joke about going through mid-life crises and kid each other about being threats to society. Dave Wood, 44, who owns a golf course and an environmental company that cleans up contaminated soil, gets a big laugh from everyone when he pulls up the sleeve on his T-shirt to display a newly acquired tattoo on his right shoulder.

But from their conversation, it is apparent that beneath the leather jackets and black T-shirts these are hardworking, successful businessmen who are enjoying their prosperity. “I had dirt bikes when I was 18 or 19, but I always dreamed of owning a big bike,” says Wood. “So I said, ‘Once I have the dough and the time, why not enjoy what I want?’ I used to have a Corvette and a 33-foot sailboat that was like a RollsRoyce on the water. But the bike’s the greatest thing I’ve ever had.”

Others discovered bikes as middle-aged men, and were hooked immediately. Bill MacWilliams, age 50, who owns two golf courses north of Toronto, purchased his first motorcycle last year. Eight months later, he bought his second, a limited edition model that resembles a 1940s police bike. MacWilliams added $6,000 worth of chrome pipes and parts, lowered the seat, changed the spokes and installed a windshield. “When they opened a dealership down the road from my house, it was like a giant Toys “R” Us for adults,” says MacWilliams. “I said, ‘I have to have one.’ ”

For Larter, one of the pleasures of owning a motorcycle is the camaraderie. “Bikers like to putter around their dealership on a Saturday morning with a coffee, then go out for a jaunt,” he says. “You talk about options, touring, things like that.” And out on the road, Harley riders share something else they consider their own—the unique sound of their engines. “It’s a gratifying loud, throaty sound, very distinguishable from other bikes,” says Larter. “You know, dogs can hear high-pitched sounds that humans can’t hear—and Harley riders can hear this slow, resonating, powerful sound of their engines.”

By early evening, the other weekend bikers, the ones who wear leather and denim, beards and tattoos, skullcaps and bandannas, are turning up the volume out on the fairgrounds. They build camp fires, drink beer and listen to the rock band playing in the food tent. Bikers cruise slowly around, revving their engines and showing off their machines. They ride without helmets. Most have a beer in one hand, a cigarette dangling from their lips and a woman on the back. They look like rebels, not RUBs.

But most of Miller’s friends are not around to participate in the revelry. By the end of the afternoon, they had left Fenelon Falls for their homes in the northern suburbs of Toronto. MacWilliams has his golf courses to run. Larter has a Saturday-night gig with Rusty and the Has-Beens, his pop nostalgia band. The others had rushed home, having promised their wives and children that they would be back before bedtime.

D’ARCY JENISH in Fenelon Falls