The Best of Times
Not all days are created equal. Today is something special
At dawn I slide the patio door open in the rented off-season ski chalet and our cat, a former stray who rejects the constraints of domesticity, greets me. He flops on his side with a self-satisfied groan. Out all night. Again. And then Thumbs, who has extra digits on his front paws (“Polydactyl,” said the vet. “Likely from inbreeding”) levels me with a half-lidded stare that says, in the infuriatingly omniscient way cats judge us, that I could do with a little spontaneity myself. I step over the cat into the day. I’ve heard this from him before.
Stars sharp as pinpoints hang in the western sky. To the east, the sun is the glow of an oncoming car’s headlights from beneath the crest of a hill. The air has changed. The month-long veil of humidity is gone. Something else is different, too. Something more than the turn in the weather. Some days, like today, offer possibility, and the harder you try to determine why merely scuttles the mood.
I grab my riding gear and make for the door. The cat must choose between inside food or outside freedom—he’s going to be locked up or locked out. He runs to the food. Hypocrite. I ride my wife’s KTM RC390 20 kilometres west to the storage unit. The rolling-up of the door reveals my possessions—all of them—locked-down in a 10 by 20. Overturned yard-sale mid-century chairs poke legs stiffly upward like roadkill in the back of the township’s pickup truck. Eight stacked snow tires lean menacingly at unlabeled bins, the contents of which I was convinced I’d remember. I roll the 916 out of the unit and the KTM in.
The move from the city was to have simplified my motorcycling life. For years I envisioned riding out of a garage adjacent to my house and onto a road free of traffic. I’m not convinced it’ll happen. But I’m not giving up. Not yet. Mindful of the warming engine’s water temperature gauge, I ease the 916 to the edge of town and turn east. An early Porsche 911 howls past in the opposite direction. Time to get moving.
I set the revs free, slow to pass a row of cottages, accelerate hard up a hill (that I gingerly crest) and drop to a bridge that crosses a river. And then it happens. The dark pines on the far riverbank release cool, dense air, and though the chill flickers but a moment, my mind flashcards through a sequence of what’s ahead: the musty dank of leaves in fall, the hush of falling snow, and the crackle from a woodstove. I am engulfed in happiness. I forgive those who’ve wronged me and forgive myself for the wrongs I’ve done to others. In a few miles the flame fades but the warmth remains. That I’m without a woodstove doesn’t, in the slightest, sour my mood.
I descend into the Beaver Valley ravenous with hunger. At the Kimberley General Store, I order a sandwich and a San Pellegrino and retire to the front porch. In the distance I hear the complex sound of meshing gears and uncorked exhaust. And then a ’70s Ducati in blue and silver eases down main street. The rider glances at the 916 and rumbles out of earshot. And then back into earshot. He’s returned.
The rider parks and walks up the noisy wooden steps of the old store. We find each other as naturally as gunslingers in a John Ford western. I gesture to the seat opposite. The man sits. His name, I learn, is Chris. We talk desmodromic valve clearances, his years as a machinist in the steel mills, and his history with his bike, a 1978 900SS. Chris bought the bike in 1980, and the 150,000 kilometres on the odometer are mostly his. When he was young, he wedged the Ducati under guardrails and flung it down the road "too often,” he says. Chris is 70-years-old.
As Chris and I talk, I become aware of a woman standing at our table. “Neil,” she says. There is no questioning in her voice. She knows who I am. I wait for her to continue, but she doesn’t. Her smile is dark and low. Chris’s eyes dart from the woman to me. He’s enjoying this. I’m on the cusp of discomfort. “I’m sorry,” I say, “I don’t know you.” She says her name and I fall back 20 years to an old warehouse in the city where I once lived. Next door to me was a writer, and this woman was the best friend of the writer’s sister.
In our 20s we lived near the flashpoint. Our friendships and romances and finances swung from chaos to ruin. The writer was tempestuous; his sister a riotous companion. Once, she came with me to the track when I raced speedway, and drove my competitors into a fury of desire. It all came undone after I invited the writer, who had moved to New York, to a friend’s birthday party in the city. The writer, in time, married the woman who, at the party, had been my friend’s girlfriend. But not before the writer and the friend fired threats and fists in a midtown café. The ordeal nearly undid my friend; heartbreak can destroy a man. I wasn’t able to straddle both sides of the drama, so I stuck with my friend. And the writer, his sister, and the sister’s best friend disappeared from my life and from memory.
The value and age of vintage Ducatis means few are ridden with regularity. Bevel drive Ducatis (so named because the overhead camshafts are driven by vertical shafts topped by bevel gears) have stopped being motorcycles and have become jewelry. That Chris’s bike has escaped this indignity is a credit to his inclinations and a reflection of his reality—he likes to ride it; it’s his only motorcycle.
We circle the bike. I ask Chris if he’d mind if I sit on it. The Ducati is on its centrestand, and I hunker down as if at speed. The view across the long fuel tank overtop the gauges through the wobbly fairing screen is gloriously evocative of noise and speed. And then, from Chris: “Would you like to take it for a ride?”
Old motorcycles are often a disappointment. To be kept limber, motorcycles need to be regularly exercised, but few are ridden enough to be remotely close to peak mechanical condition. Parts wear out and are expensive to buy or near-impossible to find, and so the machines slowly atrophy. And what owner has the time or expertise to jet and synchronize a pair of gaping Dell’Ortos?
But the greater issue in riding old motorcycles has to do with the march of technology. Old bikes, often, are not good. Or as good as we remember them to be. I rode a Vincent Rapide that would have struggled to keep up with a Honda Shadow. The Vincent’s beauty couldn’t compensate for its listless power delivery or alarmingly flexy chassis. But Chris’s Ducati is different.
“Tell me what you think of it. Honestly,” says Chris as I cinch my chinstrap. With a glance over my shoulder for traffic and a downward tap into first, I pull away. I shift up to third, try the brakes (decent power, little feedback) and turn onto the best road in our region, a sharp climb with sweeping third-gear corners adjacent to a ski hill.
And then I gun it. Hard. Intake and exhaust noises battle to outdo each other and tach and speedo needles swing upward in joyous harmony. I’m immediately at ease. I bank late into a sweeping turn and the Ducati holds an unflappable line. The combination of a long wheelbase, conservative steering geometry, and skinny tires contribute to handling both nimble and deliberate, characteristics often at odds on modern machines. Feedback from the tires is astounding. Later, Chris tells of grinding engine cases riding up Hamilton mountain three decades ago. If the bike were mine, I’d be doing the same right now.
The Ducati is precise, thin, hard. And the sound. Not as loud as you’d think, but as loud as you’d like. And for the next 15 minutes it’s mine. The road ends and I turn around for the ride back to the General Store. But not before pulling onto the shoulder and snicking the transmission to neutral. I don’t want to guzzle down too quickly. As the Ducati idles a sweet low bellow, I sit still for a long minute. Then down the hill, pushed ahead by the noise from the Contis on the overrun, like a slowing boat shoved forward by its wake.
With Chris’s contact info scribbled on a napkin in my pocket, I head for home on the 916. I’m flying. But not in a hurry. At the top of the road I stop at my coffee shop to stretch the afternoon out. It’s busy. People up from the city. With my coffee I turn to find a seat. A woman in chaps walks in the door straight up to me. “You’re the one,” she says, stabbing her finger at my bike parked in front. “You passed me at, like, 80 miles-an-hour.” “No,” I say. “It was closer to 120.”
Thumbs is impatient as I unlock the door. I scoop him up and kiss him on the lips. He jabs a huge inbred paw at my chin to halt the nonsense. I grab a beer from the fridge and collapse onto a deck chair. I let out a long happy groan and close my eyes. I open them to Thumbs staring at me from the edge of the roof. Have I got a story for you, I say aloud to the cat’s hind end as he leaps to the ground and disappears into the woods for a night of who-knows-what. Have I got a story for you.