#294 These are the good old days

Nancy Irwin renews her pledge of allegiance to a 26-year-old, gets turned backwards on a KLX, and Sprints off with an Italian. Is it love in Paris, or simply a Varey CVMG Rally?

These are the good old days

Your satisfaction is guaranteed at the annual Canadian Vintage Motorcycle Rally in Paris, Ontario. This year I got to ride a 650 Kawasaki KLX, first with the owner on the back, then in front. Oh, I also rode on the back, backwards. How did this happen? Blame it on those “children’s games” that happen at rallies. For me, the pleasure was riding other people’s bikes.
The big dirt bike was so tall I could only tiptoe on one side or the other until the owner got on the back. Then everything was fine. It handled like a dream, just like the KLR I occasionally ride. I used to get a lift home on a friend’s Honda 650 XL when I’d left my own bike in Europe one season and was living in New York. The XL had no passenger pegs, so the ride home up the West Side Highway made for a very long half hour. The upside was that I got good at balancing on the back.
The KLX was also a rider pegs only situation. My passenger put his steel toe boots on the pegs and I put my boots on top of his. This allowed me a perfect riding position and to hold the tank between my knees—which significantly improved my ability to handle the bike. Ask how I know.
We didn’t win any prizes, but I got a huge kick from having the passenger in front of me pick tennis balls off the top of orange cones while we wove in between them. Not sure I’ve ever been the operator with the passenger in front before. I know I’ve done the opposite.
At one point I switched to the back and got a ride over a big pile of dirt, set out in the centre of the horse track at the Paris Fairgrounds. Catching air while on the back is a whole other experience. There’s something about being out of control that makes it all the more exciting, or is that frightening? I tend to think that turnabout is fair play. Gets me in trouble sometimes, but I prefer an exciting life to a safe, boring one.
I brought my BMW enduro Casper to the CVMG rally after getting all her pieces back together again and, as always, she was a pleasure to ride. But I seem to always end up on other people’s bikes.
Whether they’re my least favourite or my most cherished styles, it’s always a treat to learn to handle something other than what I’m used to riding. Maybe other people change bikes often enough that they have this experience with a new bike every year or two, but I seem to rely on the kindness of strangers.
CVMG rally attendee Jamie McGregor, who’s into vintage bicycles, jumped out and said, “Remember me from the Louden New Hampshire race track? Your bike was brand new back then. You let me ride …” And I think back to when Casper was new. She was so unusual, this monster enduro, that almost no one had ridden one. I admit I let all sorts of strangers ride my bike—which I never did with my Triumph or Norton. If someone had a bike that made me think they could handle mine, i.e. not a 125cc, and they expressed the right amount of enthusiasm, off Casper went without me. You never get to know what a bike feels like if you don’t get to try.
I had a pet project this year. I found what appears to be a 1967 owners manual for a 350cc Harley Sprint, made by the Italian firm Aermacchi which Harley-Davidson acquired (or at least bought controlling interest) way back when. It was among the items belonging to a friend and Sportster rider whose sudden departure left us holding a lot of Harley kitsch and this one odd manual that I plucked from Caren Cunningham’s collection.
I went hunting for the bike and showed the manual to Sprint owners camped out on Friday night. People asked how much, eager to nab it. I told them it wasn’t for sale. Complete in an original factory envelope, the pristine manual belongs to a bike. I’m looking for a pristine Model H or SS to give it to. If I’ve learned anything in my years of restoring and maintaining a vintage bike, it’s the value of these little treasures—priceless as the woman who used to own it.
There are many advantages to attending the vintage rally. One is seeing the fantastic collection of antique bikes—including a 1986 R 80 G/S!  But best of all is hearing the old bikes run. That’s something you don’t get in a museum. Many only run a handful of times a year.
The Trillium Reliability Run is an event that’s part of the rally, and not only is it a pleasure, but it may be the deciding factor in the concours judging if there are two bikes that score equally well, but only one went on the road run. This year the ride ended at Jody and Bonnie Varey’s 66-acre estate in south Brantford, where 125 people were generously invited to prime rib burgers, salad, fruit and Bonnie’s homemade cake. The lawn was decorated with a display of the Varey’s antique motorcycles, and their driveway with rally bikes.
Bonnie’s parents used to own West Street Cycle in Brantford, and she was the young gal behind the counter who changed quarters into dimes and nickels for the pop machine. Her two older brothers were bike riders and Jody’s friends. They tipped him off to when he could pop by to find Bonnie at home. The two got together in 1975, while Jody was in his mid-20s and Bonnie in her late teens. Sound like a love story?
They now own two-dozen motorcycles ranging from 1937 to 1970, including seven Velocettes and a lovely 500cc Triumph single carb affectionately known as a Jack Pine, with a 2-into-1 high muffler, and green and cream livery. My eyes got stuck on that machine—I have a thing for Triumph’s. And they have two modern BMW sport touring bikes.
I’m so glad to have Casper back on the road. At 26, she is starting to seem vintage. If I ever feel discouraged to be riding such an old motorcycle, I only need look at the bikes running around at the rally to know she’s young. I am ever grateful to my elders, both people and machines, who inspire me. I plan to ride, and to ride Casper indefinitely.
P.S. Friday the 13th. Port Dover, Ontario. This September.

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