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Freedom to Ride - Kissed by sunshine, stung by rain, riding season is here again

Ever notice how bikers give each other a little wave as they pass? That wave is an acknowledgment of a shared philosophy of life
Randy Beckett and his dog embrace the freedom of open spaces and open air that can only come from two wheels.

Ever notice how bikers give each other a little wave as they pass on the road? It’s not that they necessarily know one another, it’s just that bikers are different from the rest of us. That wave is an acknowledgment of a shared philosophy of life that sets them apart from the minivan set.

You see, cars, vans and SUV’s are designed to isolate us from everyone else on the road. With the windows up and the air conditioning on, drivers can crank the music and retreat from the world. DVD players occupy the kids in the back and hands-free phones allow nonstop contact with the office or friends. Pillowy suspension smooths out the road to the point where one may as well be sitting on an easy chair. Seated in their rolling isolation chambers, these drivers view the world as they might watch an image on TV.

But not bikers. Bikers are a part of the world. They feel the road. They’re kissed by sunshine or stung by rain. They feel the bite of the wind, taste the salt air and smell the perfume of cedars on a winding road. They not only see the world; they’re part of it.

It’s a feeling that is being pursued by an increasing number of everyday people in and around Victoria. In 2006, there were 74,000 licensed motorcycles on Vancouver Island. By 2010, that number had grown to 96,000. Today, there are over 110,000.

Sure, that is a tiny proportion of motor vehicles (there are well over two million cars and trucks on the Island) but that’s the point. Riders aren’t like the rest, and they know it.

Still, they aren’t outlaws; not the vast majority at least. Sure, the Hells Angels and other motorcycle gangs have coloured (some might say hijacked) the image of bikers as badass outsiders who terrorize the countryside, but that image is more the stuff of legend than reality. Outlaw bikers exist, but to paint all bikers as outlaws is like characterizing everyone driving a white panel van as a serial killer.

“We like bikes,” explained one Hells Angels full-patch member. “So what? So do a lot of people. Anyway, most of the guys ride with us for the companionship . . . we’re sort of on the same page. Most bikers you see today are more likely to be bankers than gang members. Hey, but maybe bankers are a kind of gang, too!”

Positive side of the law

Whether you believe all of that or not, there is truth in the assertion that the groups of bikers you see today are most likely to be very much on the positive side of the law.

Take the Blue Knights for example. They’re a fraternal organization made up of active and retired law enforcement personnel. There are 630 chapters of the club internationally and 47 of those are on the West Coast. On Vancouver Island, there are 40 some members.

Chris Morrison, head of the Island chapter, is very proud of his group and the good work they do. “Last year, the Blue Knights ‘Ride to Live’ raised over $150,000 for prostate cancer research. We also adopt stretches of highway to maintain and we offer traffic assistance for parades.”

“It’s also about the freedom of riding down a winding road,” he says with a smile. “When I ride, I put the world behind me.”

Ike de Jong, the Blue Knights chaplain, agrees. “These are some great guys who do a lot of great work. Still, they love the edginess of riding; it’s a common bond that binds them.”

It’s that apparent contradiction of social responsibility and the need to operate slightly outside the box that characterizes most bikers today.

Steve Drane knows all about that. Drane has owned and operated the Island’s Harley Davidson dealership for some 37 years. Riding is in his blood.

“It’s about being ‘out there’ a little bit,” Drane explains. “Sure there’s a certain danger; we’re not protected by a couple of tons of steel, so it requires a lot of skill. It’s like flying an airplane, only you’re three feet off the ground. There’s no other feeling like it!”

That sentiment is shared by other members of HOG (the Harley Owners Group). Take Diana Conner for example. She is a petite woman in her early 50s who, having raised a family found that she was looking for a different kind of challenge. She bought herself a bike and started riding. In 2006, on a solo vacation, she earned her nickname when a couple of other bikers joined her on an 11-day vacation of sorts.

“I’d just needed to get away so I’d packed up and left. That’s when I met Flo and Rob, and they sort of adopted me for the remainder of the trip,” Conner explains. “They named me ‘Stray Cat’.” The name stuck.

Conner also met the love of her life. “His name was Fred and he could really ride,” she says. “It was like the bike was an extension of his body.”

Tragically, despite his skill, Fred was killed in an accident while he and Conner were returning from a motorcycle “honeymoon.” A deer stepped onto the highway and Fred was killed just a few yards in front of Conner. “I was right behind him when it happened,” she explains. “It was just one of those things; there was nothing he could do.”

A lot of people assumed Conner would stop riding after Fred’s death, but that wasn’t going to happen. “Riding is what keeps me sane. I get on the road and the rest of the world disappears.”

Conner still sports a Stray Cat patch on her leather vest and these days she’s riding a bright purple Harley Soft Tail Deluxe. She rides with two clubs and speaks with pride about how her HOG chapter raised money for Jeneese Place (a shelter for families travelling to Victoria for extended medical care.)

That’s the passion of riding.

And of course, like any other subculture, motorcycle riders have a number of subsets.

There’s the Victoria Motorcycle Club. It was established in 1906 and claims to be the oldest in Canada. They own 175 acres of land just outside Victoria, where the club concentrates on trail (off-road) riding. Members range from 4 years of age to folks well into their 80s.

Then there’s the Geriatric Motorcycle Club, a small group of individuals who ride together to capture that same feeling of edgy freedom. The only difference is that they are all over 70 years old. The oldest member is over 90, still riding his Harley Hard Tail. He started riding during the Second World War and never gave it up.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Jeff Custeau and his annual event, Forever Two Wheels, held at Logan’s Pub and featuring custom and classic bikes along with artwork, rock music and everything “biker.”

“We’re getting away from freedom more and more,” explains Custeau. “But bikers are trying to recapture that freedom. It’s a bit more dangerous; more out there. It’s what sets us apart from the mainstream.” M