I think many of us have pushed beyond our borders to explore Europe. Out there await wide, open stretches of dusty French countryside, verdant green German forests and snowy alpine mountain hairpins. But how many of us have pushed further than that, ventured away from our continent into Africa, Asia or America?
I recently returned from a three-week family visit to Canada; a country known for its vast tracts of sparsely populated land, where bears outnumber the people and Tim Hortons coffee & donut shops outnumber the bears. While there, I had the opportunity to borrow my Uncle’s Moto Guzzi Norge 1200, a bike no longer sold on these shores, and learn a little bit about motorcycling in Canada. Let’s just say the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
- Motorcycling & air travel work surprisingly well. Parking is often free, security is good, and helmets don’t count towards your traditional carry-on luggage allowance.
- Petrol is cheap, but everyone still complains about the price. At last count, you’re looking at around 70p per litre, although if you refuel on Indian Reservations it’s cheaper still.
- …and it comes in many flavours. Do you know what octane-rating your motorcycle needs? 85? 87? 93? According to your owner’s manual, it’s probably 91, or 97 if you own a modern BMW, but everyone here just buys the cheapest grade anyway. I hope their knock sensors are working.
- The cars are enormous. The pick-up trucks we see on British roads are dwarfed by those driven in Canada & the US, and after a while you start to think of the Porsche Cayenne as an adorable compact car.
- Filtering is illegal. And people really, really don’t like it when you do it. You can sit in traffic in 30C+ heat like everyone else…minus the air conditioning.
- Speed limits are patronisingly low. We complain about Oxford nationals, but let me put things into perspective. Motorways are 60mph, A-roads are 50mph, and B-roads are usually 30mph. Around town 20-25mph is the norm. And it gets worse…
- The Police don’t mess around. I was fortunate not to encounter this personally, but the police take an extremely dim view of speeding, and lurk behind billboards and trees with radar guns to catch you coming a mile away.
- Every junction has a Stop sign. And boy, will they nail you for rolling through one of these. They’re everywhere, and particularly galling when a) you can see for half a mile in every direction and no-one is coming and b) you will have to repeat this stop/start pantomime a dozen times just to cross a small town, even when there are no other cars on the road.
- Most roads are long and straight. In a country this large, be prepared to go cross-eyed staring at the horizon for hours on end.
- No-one cares what you ride. Here in the UK cruiser riders won’t wave back, and sports-bike riders seem to ignore anyone not similarly equipped. In Canada, everyone waves!
- Can-Am sell a lot of Spyders. The three-wheelers never really caught on here, but if you can’t filter, petrol is cheap, speed limits are low and parking is plentiful, then the disadvantages of the larger, heavier vehicles evaporate. They still can’t lean, though…
- Everything else is a cruiser. It’s not quite as Harley-centric as the US, but pretty close.
- All motorcycles look showroom-fresh. No-one rides in winter due to months of -30C temperatures and several feet of snow, and no-one rides in the rain because motorcycles are just recreational vehicles over there. That means no rust, no corrosion of any kind – you’ve never seen such a clean 2002 Kawasaki Ninja 250.
- Canada has no annual MOT. You have to get a safety inspection when you first buy your vehicle (new or used), but after that it’s up to the owner to do their own checks. Or not, as the case may be. If you borrow someone else’s car or bike, don’t assume their brakes work, or that any other critical safety equipment is functional.
- Safety gear is very optional. I saw a few people wearing jackets and gloves, though I’m unconvinced that they would have stood up to anything beyond a bit of light gardening. Helmets are open-face, often pudding-bowl design, and sandals are not uncommon.
- Learners can ride whatever they want. Canada has graduated licensing, but the only limitations are that lower-class license holders aren’t allowed on motorways. 500-600cc motorcycles are considered good beginners’ bikes, and watching people wobble away from the training centre on brand-new, big-twin Harleys is a common (and comedic) sight.
Big on cruisers…
… of any shape and size.
Good riding is hard to come by. Interesting riding can be scarce, and it’s likely that you’ll need to travel a great distance – several days or more – to find the really good stuff. The local riders just ride the motorways from one Tim Hortons to another Tim Hortons; stopping to eat a donut and admire each other’s chrome before heading on to the next one.
Tarmac is optional. Gravel roads are common once you get away from the main routes, and it’s not uncommon to encounter patches of sand or gravel mid-corner out in the countryside.
I’m told that pushing on to the Rockies will give you some of the most spectacular riding of your life, and that the best riding can be found off-road, out in the endless wilderness or spectacular national parks. But Canada will warp your sense of scale; the entirety of the UK would comfortably fit inside the smallest Canadian province, so simply getting to those roads will eat up your whole trip. Your nearest trackway is several day’s drive away.
After riding in Canada, even the M1 will seem like a cornucopia of excitement, variation and engagement. It was nice to visit my family, but I couldn’t wait to ride my own bike back at home again.
First published in Slipstream August 2018