By Tom Ruttan
CYCLE CANADA - APRIL 2002
The bike's passenger seat swept up just enough that I could see over my
father's shoulders. That seat was my throne. My dad and I traveled many
back roads, searching for the ones we had never found before. Traveling
these roads just to see where they went. Never in a rush. Just be home
I remember wandering down a back road with my father, sitting on my
throne watching the trees whiz by, feeling the rumble of our bike
beneath us like a contented giant cat. A motorcycle came over a hill
toward us and as it went by, my father threw up his gloved clutch hand
and gave a little wave. The other biker waved back with the same
friendly swing of his left wrist.
I tapped my father on his shoulder, which was our signal that I wanted
to say something. He cocked his helmeted ear back slightly while keeping
his eyes ahead.
I yelled, "Do we know him?" "What?" he shouted.
"You waved to him. Who was it?" "I don't know. Just another guy on a
bike. So I waved."
"How come?" "You just do. It's important."
Later, when we had stopped for chocolate ice cream, I asked why it was
important to wave to other bikers. My father tried to explain how the
wave demonstrated comradeship and a mutual understanding of what it was
to enjoy riding a motorcycle. He looked for the words to describe how
almost all bikers struggled with the same things like cold, rain, heat,
car drivers who did not see them, but how riding remained an almost pure
I was young then and I am not sure that I really understood what he was
trying to get across, but .
It was a beginning. Afterward, I always waved along with my father when
we passed other bikers.
I remember one cold October morning when the clouds were heavy and dark,
giving us another clue that winter was rolling in from just over the
horizon. My father and I were warm inside our car as we headed to a
friend's home. Rounding a comer, we saw a motorcycle parked on the
shoulder of the road. Past the bike, we saw the rider walking through
the ditch, scouring the long grasses crowned with a touch of frost. We
pulled over and backed up to where the bike stood.
I asked Dad, "Who's that?" "Don't know," he replied. "But he seems to
have lost something. Maybe we can give him a hand."
We left the car and wandered through the tall grass of the ditch to the
biker. He said that he had been pulling on his gloves as he rode and he
had lost one. The three of us spent some time combing the ditch, but all
we found were two empty cans and a plastic water bottle.
My father turned and headed back to our car and I followed him. He
opened the trunk and threw the cans and the water bottle into a small
cardboard box that we kept for garbage. He rummaged through various
tools, oil containers and windshield washer fluid until he found an old
crumpled pair of brown leather gloves. Dad straightened them out and
handed them to me to hold. He continued looking until he located an old
catalogue. I understood why my dad had grabbed the gloves. I had no idea
what he was going to do with the catalogue. We headed back to the biker
who was still walking the ditch.
My dad said, "Here's some gloves for you. And I brought you a catalogue
as well." "Thanks," he replied. I really appreciate it." He reached into
his hip pocket and withdrew a worn black wallet. "Let me give you some
money for the gloves," he said as he slid some bills out.
"No thanks," my dad replied as I handed the rider the gloves. "They're
old and not worth anything anyway." The biker smiled. "Thanks a lot." He
pulled on the old gloves and then he unzipped his jacket. I watched as
my father handed him the catalogue and the biker slipped it inside his
coat. He jostled his jacket around to get the catalogue sitting high and
centered under his coat and zipped it up. I remember nodding my head at
the time, finally making sense of why my dad had given him the
catalogue. It would keep him bit warmer. After wishing the biker well,
my father and I left him warming up his bike.
Two weeks later, the biker came to our home and returned my father's
gloves. He had found our address on the catalogue. Neither my father nor
the biker seemed to think that my father stopping at the side of the
road for a stranger and giving him a pair of gloves, and that stranger
making sure that the gloves were returned, were events at all out of the
ordinary for people who rode motorcycles. For me, it was another subtle
It was spring the next year when I was sitting high on my throne,
watching the farm fields slip by when I saw two bikes coming towards us.
As they rumbled past, both my father and I waved, but the other bikers
kept their sunglasses locked straight ahead and did not acknowledge us.
I remember thinking that they must have seen us because our waves were
too obvious to miss. Why hadn't they waved back? I thought all bikers
waved to one another.
I patted my father on his shoulder and yelled, "How come they didn't
wave to us?" "Don't know. Sometimes they don't."
I remember feeling very puzzled. Why wouldn't someone wave back? Later
that summer, I turned 12 and learned how to ride a bike with a clutch. I
spent many afternoons on a country laneway beside our home, kicking and
kicking to start my father's '55 BSA. When it would finally sputter to a
start, my concentration would grow to a sharp focus as I tried to let
out the clutch slowly while marrying it with just enough throttle to
bring me to a smooth takeoff. More often, I lurched and stumbled forward
while trying to keep the front wheel straight and remember to pick my
feet up. A few feet farther down the lane, I would sigh and begin
A couple of years later, my older brother began road racing, and I
became a racetrack rat. We spent many weekends wandering to several
tracks in Ontario-Harewood, Mosport and eventually Shannonville. These
were the early years of two-stroke domination, of Kawasaki green and 750
two- stroke triples, of Yvon Duhamel's cat-and-mouse games and the
artistry of Steve Baker.
Eventually, I started to pursue interests other than the race track. I
got my motorcycle license and began wandering the back roads on my own.
I found myself stopping along side roads if I saw a rider sitting alone,
just checking to see if I could be of help. And I continued to wave to
each biker I saw.
But I remained confused as to why some riders never waved back. It left
me with almost a feeling of rejection, as if I were reaching to shake
someone's hand but they kept their arm hanging by their side.
I began to canvass my friends about waving. I talked with people I met
at bike events, asking what they thought. Most of the riders told me
they waved to other motorcyclists and often initiated the friendly air
handshake as they passed one another.
I did meet some riders, though, who told me that they did not wave to
other riders because they felt that they were different from other
bikers. They felt that they were "a breed apart." One guy told me in
colorful language that he did not "wave to no wusses.'' He went on to
say that his kind of bikers were tough, independent, and they did not
require or want the help of anyone, whether they rode a bike or not.
I suspected that there were some people who bought a bike because they
wanted to purchase an image of being tougher, more independent, a not-
putting-up-with-anyone's-crap kind of person, but I did not think that
this was typical of most riders.
People buy bikes for different reasons. Some will be quick to tell you
what make it is, how much they paid for it, or how fast it will go.
Brand loyalty is going to be strong for some people whether they have a
Harley, Ford, Sony, Nike or whatever. Some people want to buy an image
and try to purchase another person's perception of them. But it can't be
done. They hope that it can, but it can't.
Still, there is a group of people who ride bikes who truly are a "breed
apart." They appreciate both the engineering and the artistry in the
machines they ride. Their bikes become part of who they are and how they
define themselves to themselves alone.
They don't care what other people think. They don't care if anyone knows
how much they paid for their bike or how fast it will go. The bike means
something to them that nothing else does. They ride for themselves and
not for anyone else. They don't care whether anyone knows they have a
bike. They may not be able to find words to describe what it means to
ride, but they still know. They might not be able to explain what it
means to feel the smooth acceleration and the strength beneath them. But
These are the riders who park their bikes, begin to walk away and then
stop. They turn and took back. They see something when they look at
their bikes that you might not. Something more complex, something that
is almost secret, sensed rather than known. They see their passion. They
see a part of themselves.
These are the riders who understand why they wave to other
motorcyclists. They savor the wave. It symbolizes the connection between
riders, and if they saw you and your bike on the side of the road, they
would stop to help and might not ask your name. They understand what you
are up against every time you take your bike on the road-the drivers
that do not see you, the ones that cut you off or tailgate you, the
potholes that hide in wait. The rain. The cold.
I have been shivering and sweating on a bike for more than 40 years.
Most of the riders that pass give me a supportive wave. I love it when I
see a younger rider on a "crotch rocket" scream past me and wave. New
riders carrying on traditions.
And I will continue in my attempts to get every biker just a little
closer to one another with a simple wave of my gloved clutch hand. And
if they do not wave back when I extend my hand into the breeze as I pass
them, I will smile a little more. They may be a little mistaken about
just who is a "breed apart."
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