The author, taking a short break next to some tall water. SUPPLIED

A gentleman goes on a ride for a cause

In a car you’re always in a compartment…you’re a passive observer, and it is all moving by you, boringly, in a frame. On a motorcycle, the frame is gone…you’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.

—Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I read Pirsig’s book during my university years. At the time, a 750 Honda was my primary mode of transportation to attend classes, as I regularly ascended the hill at the south end of Glenridge towards Brock. I’d bought my first motorcycle in high school, a 250 Suzuki, when I was barely 16, and to date had my only spill on it. I failed to negotiate an icy bridge on the outskirts of Port Dalhousie, and paid for it with 20 stitches in my knee and a bruised ego.

Undaunted, over the years I bought and sold a small fleet of the machines, with perhaps my favourite being a smooth and sophisticated Honda GoldWing Aspencade, which I picked up from a teaching colleague. I bartered it off just over a decade ago, and have been bike-less ever since.

That is, until this spring, when in my mid 60s, I got the itch again, a hankering to get back in the saddle. Wisdom acquired over the years convinced me that my days of riding high-revving sport bikes and “crotch rockets” were in the rearview mirror, and I scoured the internet for large-displacement “cruiser” bikes that would serve both for romps around town, and longer excursions along distant highways and country roads. I sourced a few motorcycles that fit the bill, and decided on a ten-year-old Yamaha Road Star Silverado, with a touring package, that was for sale just down Highway 20 at Clare’s in Fenwick. The 1700 cc twin cylinder beauty soon occupied a place of honour in my garage.

There’s a thick file of A-listers who drive motorcycles. Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Keanu Reeves, Bradley Cooper, David Beckham, Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Ben Affleck, Justin Timberlake, Bruce Springsteen, Gale Godot, Jewel, Pink, Queen Latifah, Alanis Morrissette, Miley Cyrus. Hollywood icon Clark Gable was an enthusiast, as was Steve McQueen, who memorably did his own motorcycle riding and stunts in the 1963 action movie The Great Escape. George Clooney was a motorcycle aficionado until he had a serious crash in Sardinia in 2018, while filming a movie, and swore off bikes for good. (Frankly, I think it was more an edict from his wife.)

Always looking for an excuse for a long stretch in the saddle, I happened upon a Facebook page and website called The Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride, which was tied in with the Movember campaign. The site was advertising its annual fundraising motorcycle ride on Sunday, May 23, with proceeds directed to prostate cancer research and men’s mental health. It seemed like a great way to combine charity with the chance to crank the throttle, so I signed on, and started raising donations.

Founded in Sydney, Australia over a decade ago, the event’s theme was inspired by a scene on the TV series Mad Men, in which advertising exec Don Draper is perched upon a classic bike and wearing a vintage-inspired suit. It was agreed that this would be a great way to combat the often-negative stereotype of men on motorcycles, and to unite niche motorcycle communities.

That first ride in 2012 brought together 2,500 riders across 64 cities. This year, some 120,000 distinguished gentlefolk — both men and women — in 750 cities worldwide participated in this worthy cause, which has raised some $31 million US since its inception.

Given the social-distancing guidelines of the pandemic, the organizers suggested solo rides on a course of the motorcyclist’s choosing, rather than set routes. Accordingly, I planned a loop of the Niagara Peninsula which would take me from Pelham, south to Port Colborne, and then in a counter-clockwise direction east, north along the Niagara Parkway, and west toward home. About 170 kilometres with a few stops, I figured.

I was accompanied on the jaunt around Niagara by my friend Marc from Grimsby, astride his gloss-black BMW 1200 touring bike. It was apropos that Marc joined the event, given that he was a prostate cancer survivor himself.

The weather was perfect that Sunday morning, breezy and bright. I met Marc in front of the Tim Horton’s at Highway 20 and Haist, and we enjoyed an obligatory coffee and croissant before heading south on Pelham Street. We followed River Road for a scenic rural drive along the Welland River, and then joined Highway 58 (West Side Road) as it led into Port Colborne. We crossed the Main Street Bridge over the Welland Canal just north of Lock Eight, and headed east on Highway 3, past Humberstone Speedway.

Highway 3 becomes Garrison Road in Fort Erie, where we connected with Niagara Boulevard and enjoyed a sweeping view of the lake, before heading north on River Road, aka the Niagara Parkway, with the Buffalo skyline over our right shoulder. We passed the old site of Nichol’s Marine, where I bought my last boat 20 years ago, and observed fisherman contently dangling their lines in the Niagara River. Our trip took us past Frenchman’s Creek, Niagara Christian College, and the Willoughby Historic Museum. The route was lined with many elegant homes, displaying manicured lawns and verdant landscaping.

We cruised into Chippawa, took a doglegged right-hand turn across the bridge over the Welland River, and followed the Parkway as it meandered towards Niagara Falls, whose mist was visible in the distance. The road snaked its way past the Sir Adam Beck Generating Station, one of Ontario’s largest hydroelectric facilities, and an amazing feat of engineering.

Assets of the Niagara Parks Commission are on display along the route, and include such landmarks as the Whirlpool Golf Course, the Botanical Gardens, the Floral Clock, and Queen Victoria Park. The Commission, founded in 1885, is charged with preserving and enhancing the natural beauty of 4200 acres of public greenspace along the river, and includes historic sites, picnic areas, and various attractions.

The Falls is as spectacular today as I remember as a child. It’s the world’s greatest waterfall by volume, with the American side being slightly higher, at just under 60 metres, than the Canadian falls, which handles 90 percent of the water flow over the brink. Created by receding glaciers some 14,000 years ago, Niagara draws its name from a term the Neutral Indians of the region used to describe “thundering water.”

We stopped briefly for photos at the Table Rock, then mounted up and rode past a pandemic-subdued Clifton Hill, continuing north on River Road towards Queenston.

Legend has it that Winston Churchill, who visited Canada in 1943 and cruised the 56-kilometre stretch of the historic Niagara Parkway, called it “the prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world.” From my perspective, the praise is well-earned. The road twists and undulates past majestic architecture, historic sites, award-winning wineries, and some of the finest Carolinian parkland in the province, all the while hugging the shore of the mighty Niagara River.

The winding stretch of parkway around Queenston is a motorcyclist’s dream. We cruised past Laura Secord’s restored homestead and Brock’s Monument, which towers above the village and commemorates the major-general who fell in battle on the nearby heights over two centuries ago.

One can almost imagine red-coated soldiers and the sound of musket fire along the route, where some of the bloodiest battles of the War of 1812 were fought. Queenston Heights has deep-rooted significance in Canadian culture, as British troops, aided by local militia and their Native allies, repelled an American force intent on annexing Canada.

Today, the Niagara Parkway experiences an invasion of a different kind: tourists from around the world, and locals out to enjoy some exercise and fresh air.

Adhering strictly to the posted speed limit, we cruised past the Shaw Festival Theatre into picturesque Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario’s first capitol, established in 1792. It was originally named Newark, by Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, and was burned to the ground by American soldiers back in 1812. The town was resurrected, and most would agree that it has aged well, with its heritage district resplendent with an array of boutique shops and restaurants.

We skirted around the NOTL Golf Course, whose founding in 1875 qualifies it as the oldest set of links in North America, and merged onto Lakeshore Road travelling west, past acres of fruit trees and vineyards. Crossing the Welland Canal at Port Weller, we continued our trek into Port Dalhousie, with its cluster of shops and restaurants, and observed the mid-rise residential waterfront development which will surely add to the St. Catharines tax base, but likely price ordinary folks out of the market.

Connecting with the Old Highway 8 (now known as Niagara Regional Road 81) we enjoyed a tour of the Niagara Wine Route through the “Bench” area of Twenty Valley, where the region’s diverse terroir of sheltered slopes and constantly circulating breezes today produces world-class wines that, in my opinion, represent pretty much perfection in a glass.

Having passed through Jordan and Vineland, I bid Marc farewell at Victoria Avenue, and headed south towards home in Fonthill, while he continued west on the Wine Route towards Grimsby, and his house nestled along the escarpment on Ridge Road.

It was a great morning cruise, well worth the three hours invested. In total, I raised just under $1300 for the coffers of the Distinguished Gentlemen’s Ride. Supporting a good cause provides intrinsic satisfaction. It may be a drop in the bucket in the great scheme of things, but it’s a start. As author Pirsig advised, “The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.”