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Return of the Graduate

Sometimes, you can go back. This is the lesson Mike Ciebien learns during a 3,500-kilometre criss crossing motorcycle tour of New England that revolves around the reunion of his high school class.

When I finally made the decision to attend the 25th reunion of my Connecticut prep school class, the looming question then became, what would I ride once the flight from Vancouver to Toronto touched down? Aside from the class reunion, there were roads to explore, friends and family that needed visiting. 

I hated the idea of sitting in a rented car for the duration of my week-long stay, especially as I had planned to log some 3,500 kilometres during a round-trip sojourn that would begin and end in Toronto, with the New England states and Quebec’s Eastern Townships sandwiched in between.

I wanted to ride something fun, somewhat comfortable, but not too flashy. I turned to my old friend Chris Ellis, the general manager of Triumph Canada, and a man with whom I had ridden many miles during the era when the Whistler, BC-based motorcycle tour company I founded—Rocky Mountain Motorcycle Holidays—offered travel packages centered exclusively around Hinckley-built Triumphs. His idea of “not too flashy” was a roulette green Speed Triple with a factory Arrow exhaust and fairing. At least I had the fun part covered in spades. With the addition of a tank bag and tail pack for luggage, I was able to jam in my suit, the Peter Mansbridge tie my wife had bought at a local fund raiser, a week’s worth of other clothes and a camera. The Green Hornet was now prepped for the Preppies.

AS HAVE MOST CANADIANS WHO’VE EVER LIVED ALONG THE Montreal/Windsor corridor, I’ve had my share of boring trips up and down the 401. Not this time. This was the perfect opportunity to ride the southern shore of Lake Ontario in upstate New York. Before entering the Land of the Free though, I made a quick detour off the QEW to revisit my family’s roots in St. Catherine’s and ride along the Welland Canal. I realize that the things you remember from childhood are generally much smaller when you see them again as an adult, but the “laker” boats that ply the locks between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie are certainly immense exceptions, and British iron was humbled by Canadian steel.

The border crossing at Lewiston was uneventful, a pleasant surprise these days and a bit of a relief when you’re on a borrowed motorcycle. Sticking close to the Lake Ontario shore line, I followed Highway 18 to Rochester, onto Highway 250 before turning south onto Highway 89 along Cayuga Lake toward Ithaca, New York. 

This is where the Speed Triple really started to shine. Somewhat hilly, well-curved and relatively smooth rural routes are an absolute blast on this bike. There’s enough engine braking that a rider needn’t always rely on the binders while exploring unfamiliar roads and the punch from 3,000 to 7,000 rpm is something that simply doesn’t exist on a stock four-cylinder motorcycle. On the crest of a tree-lined ridge, a sharp, unmarked left-hand corner becomes a 140-kmh surprise, but the powerful, linear brakes and super-stable chassis just take it all in, as though they’re just part of the scenery. The Triple simply  exudes confidence in those situations where you simply haven’t a clue what lies around the corner. 

I tucked in, blew past a few straggling cars and finally had the road to myself as the sun dropped closer to the horizon and the low-angle light created a magical golden tone.

I arrived in Ithaca, a quintessential college town, and walked up the hill to the Cornell campus, passing impromptu front yard student barbecue parties. Many of the students had already headed off-campus for the summer, but there was plenty of evidence that a week earlier every lawn had a party to celebrate a year’s worth of hard study. 

DAY TWO AND THE WEATHER CHANNEL OFFERED NOTHING encouraging for what lay ahead. Though I like unfaired motorcycles, there are days when it’s nice to have some protection, particularly from rain. Leaving Ithaca, I was greeted by a cold fog that sent chills through my bones, but I decided to get a few miles under my belt before stopping for breakfast. Not 15 minutes outside of town though, a watery sun poked through the clouds and I could feel a hint of warmth on the back of my black jacket. Soon I was into the flow of light Friday morning traffic with 130 horses under me and a twisting spectacular Catskill mountain pass ahead. It was still cold but I could keep my hands warm by leaving my gloves on the radiator as I made gas and direction check stops—it was a small price to pay for nearly empty roads and no signs of radar. 

Closing in on the Connecticut border, the weather made a turn for the worse. There was a light mist in the air at 37F; small wonder my hands were cold in my summer gloves. The roads were still largely dry so I pressed on at a decent clip toward Wallingford, Connecticut, the reunion site. 

What a thrill it was to ride right past my old dormitory where 25 years earlier I had mounted a poster of a white Yamaha RD350, my dream bike along side the classic Dark Side of the Moon prism. Check-in was at the Paul Mellon Arts Center where I drew a few raised  eyebrows from the button-down and tie-clad set as I signed in, sporting bug splattered motorcycle gear. It was apparent that a few drinks with old friends were in order.

At boarding school I spent obviously much more time with classmates than I ever did while attending Rock ‘n’ Roll public high in Montreal. Consequently, I had become very close to my school mates during those years and it was more than interesting to catch up. “Where do you live?” seemed to be the first question before all the usual family and occupational queries. The fact that I now live in Whistler definitely made for a great ice breaker and within the mellowing space of a few cocktails it was as though we’d never lost touch. 

Because this was an all-weekend affair, I had a chance to sit in on a Saturday morning French class with some very young looking kids. There’s no way we looked that young and yes, we had classes every second Saturday, even 25 years ago. Sitting with old friends reminiscing and walking once more through hallowed halls was only part of the benefit of such long trip. The best part of the weekend remains the fact that there were at least a half-dozen great people that I’ll now stay in touch with and who will more than likely show embarrassing photos to my wife when they visit Whistler. 

WHAT TO DO WITH THREE FREE DAYS OF MOTORCYCLE ADVENTURE before dinner at my in-laws on Wednesday night in Chambly, Quebec? A trip to Maine is a must and I really wanted to hit the White Mountains and hopefully ride up Mt. Washington. I found a great Victorian B&B in Center Harbor, New Hampshire with an even better restaurant right across the street. It was the calamari appetizer that convinced me to make Center Harbor my home base for at least another day. It is about a 500-km return trip out to Pemaquid Point, Maine and I made the mistake of taking Highway 25 toward the coast because it seemed like an interesting choice. My map said that this is a “scenic route,” but it was clearly edited by someone owning a 40-foot RV with no taste for curves and who thought billboards were worth a long look. 

Once off the main straightaways and heading down the little rural road out to the coast, things started getting better and the views from the lighthouse alone are worth the trip.

On my return trip, I decided to ask a local who had his bike parked outside a coffee shop which route back to Center Harbor he would suggest. It always pays to ask a motorcyclist who knows the roads. By taking a slightly northern route back along Highway 197, he said life would again be very good. The only fly in the ointment would be an extremely rough section of Route 11 heading south, but the constant lakeside vistas made it all worthwhile.

As with most Montrealers, I had already made the pilgrimage to the outlet stores of North Conway a number of times. I had no need to shop, so I decided to take the long way around the White Mountain National Park. Bear Mountain Pass had just opened for the season but unfortunately nobody had mentioned that to the large bull moose waiting for me in the middle of the road. I was on a rough frost-heaved 15-kilometre stretch so there would be no high-speed dramas as I rolled up toward the moose who slowly made his way toward the bush. The rest of the roads in the park were smooth with long sweeping curves and spectacular scenery.

I decided to shoot for the Canadian border on Highway 16 North which runs parallel to the Vermont border. My Rand & McNally map indicated lots of curves, skirting rivers and lakes with few towns. Unfortunately, it became obvious that the lack of state sales tax in New Hampshire is likely the reason that there’s no money to maintain their secondary highways. It is such a shame because 16 North has all the ingredients of an outstanding motorcycle road, except the pavement is no more than a collection of asphalt patches separated by potholes and storm sewer bumps. This road is simply dangerous on a street motorcycle at any speed. 

It was time to cut west and see if the congressman from Vermont was doing a better job. Thankfully, yes. As soon as I crossed the Connecticut River at Colebrook, the fun factor was back up and I was soon cleaning the dirt off the sides of the tires again. However, as with all rural roads in New England, deer are something to be mindful of and, with dusk only an hour away, it was time to look for a place to park for the night. 

I crossed into Quebec at the tiny Beebe border and asked the Customs Canada agent where I could stay.

Talk about surreal. I checked into what appeared to be a haunted Victorian B&B in a somewhat rundown hamlet called Stanstead, which sits right on the border with Vermont. I was feeling sorry for myself as I walked down the hill into the centre of town to find a place to eat. I had hoped for some picturesque place to stay on one of the many lakes in the region, but the rough roads of New Hampshire had taken a toll on my weary body and forced my decision to stay put. 

As I rode within 50 yards of the Stanstead border crossing, which happens to be the centre of town, I realized there are only two restaurants. One is the “Auberge du Frontiere,” which was recommended to me by the innkeeper. It seemed like the busier place with several patrons enjoying a smoke and pint on the front patio. When I looked up to see the other side of their sign I noticed it read  “Costoms House” on the English side. Nope, I’m going to give the other eatery a try. Any place that can’t spell “customs” when it’s situated a stone’s throw from the border probably isn’t going to have much besides poutine on the menu.

As I walk into Millie’s Bistro, I realized I was the only patron in the place. Not a good sign. My slightly grey mood drooped closer to black. Had I made a really bad call? Too late … I was already being greeted by a friendly server with an arty demeanour in this bohemian place. The joint was clean and I was starving, so I took a seat. I discovered that they don’t sell alcohol, but I was told I could walk across the street to the Depanneur (a Quebecois convenience store) and buy a bottle. How I’ve missed the Quebec concept of bringing my own wine to a restaurant. This was the first glimmer that things were looking up. 

My server was polite, worldly and, as it turned out, also the owner. Moreover, he said he’s a movie producer and director from Los Angeles who owns a studio right around the corner. With relish I tucked into a ginger chicken dish, followed by an Asian salad and washed down with my $15 bottle of French red, which proved to be entirely decent. 

Between the main and dessert, I learned that Bashar is  helping a young group of budding actors on a small film being shot locally. I poured us both a glass of wine to learn more, as the cast and crew started filtering into the room for dinner. Seems he’s a mentor and godfather figure there in Stanstead and I soon forget that I was ever feeling sorry for myself as I was invited to sit at the long table where 20 or more people from all over the world fed on a group dinner between shoots. I was glad I hadn’t chosen the greasy spoon across the street.

I was pummeled riding around Lake Memphremagog in the Eastern Townships, but the scenery is decent and I was truly warm for the first time on my entire trip. I was also glad that I was sitting behind wide, upright handlebars and not the clip-ons of my bike at home. Though I clocked more than 3,000 kilometres of twisty back roads in four riding days, I was still comfortable, even though I’d found my fair share of rough pavement. 

The Triumph’s 1050cc triple has a unique sound and the Arrow exhaust enhances the growl without being obnoxious. The seat is well suited to the riding position and I was utterly thrilled by riding this almost naked motorcycle in 500- to 700-kilometre daily intervals. Impressive for a bike considered to be at the forefront of the “hooligan class,” where throttle wheelies rate higher than all-day comfort.

Crossing the Champlain bridge with Montreal’s skyline on the right, I was charmed anew by North America’s most European city. Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt were in town shooting a film in Old Montreal, which is easily transformed into Paris for budget minded filmmakers. While they worked, I elected to spend a day at the Musee des Beaux Arts, which houses one of North America’s top five permanent collections in a spectacular piece of architecture. I could have easily idled away another week in this diverse jewel but, unfortunately, engagements in corporate Toronto, 500 kilometres of 401, damp weather and couple of Harvey’s cheeseburgers lay ahead.

by Mike Ciebien Canadian Biker #240

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