Leaving The Grid For The Open Road

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Big roads and big skies as far as the eye can see.

Riding in—or near—the city has nothing on riding the Highlands.

Here, a city biker takes to the open roads of Ontario's Highlands, on a trip that sets new standards.



THE RIDER

I’ve been a downtowner for most of my life. Raised in the suburbs, I always made the Friday night teenage pilgrimage into Toronto’s core, where the action was. This trips consisted of record Shopping at Sam the Record Man and A&A Records, taking in a flick at the Imperial Six, getting caught peeking into Zanzibar, and getting a bite at The Big Slice at the end of the evening, reveling at Yonge Street’s incandescence all the while. Every week the events repeated.

In those days we took the TTC, Toronto’s public transit system—not just “The Better Way,” as their tagline suggests, but The Only Way. Fast-forward a few years: the inevitable migration into the Big Smoke itself. I was living on Spadina with a bunch of zany creative types and everything I needed was just outside my door. Anything extra just took jumping on the subway and a few minutes. (That being said, my world pretty much ended just north of Bloor, where Spadina Ave becomes Spadina Road, and where I lived in the Annex.

Life on two wheels, then, meant on my 21-speed bicycle, which I used to get where I wanted to go. My transformation into a black-wearing downtown bohemian complete and—like almost all my peers—I didn’t have any need for a car, or even a driver’s licence. 

Life was good. Until I decided to pick up a camera.

I was burned out from my day job in design and decided that reinvention was the only option for me. I decided to make a go of event photography. Which meant that suddently I needed to make regular trips further north of Bloor. And lugging photo gear isn’t so bicycle-friendly. 

I started to consider some form of motorized transport. The first baby step was a rickety 150cc Chinese-built scooter that spent as much time in the shop as on the road. It was the easiest way to get mobile, not too fast, and could carry all my gear. A conscious, practical decision to get from point A to point B without breaking a sweat.

Then I got on that little bike for the first time… and being on two wheels with a motor was kind of addictive. Crazy addictive, in fact.


A first bike is a first love you never forget

Within the first year, I wanted something faster. The bikes got bigger and bigger, and my horizons got wider and wider. My downtown bubble, like the ‘burbs, was a thing of the past. The 400s are always available to get somewhere quick, but my addiction—whenever I get the chance to indulge—feeds off-the-beaten-path. My path of choice quickly became two lanes, a lot of twists, and nowhere in particular to go…

THE RIDE

How We Got There - The Route

Yes, downtown boy here rides a scooter. A big-ass Yamaha scooter with a roaring Yoshi racing pipe. With lots of underseat storage for my photo gear, it’s has been put into service with all my studio lights strapped to the back. At 500cc, my TMAX is also known to keep up with bigger bikes on the twisties, and surprise many a riding partner. It’s the Swiss Army knife of life on two wheels—practical as heck, but capable of lots of adrenaline-raising fun when asked for it.


Speaking of twisties, here we go up around the bend...

When What A Ride and Ride The Highlands invited me to take part in their first-ever Instameet, a gathering of riders who use Instagram as their playground, they offered me a list of bikes to use. On this list was the DCT version of Honda’s NC750X commuter bike, and it was a no-brainer for a scooter punk like me.

Automatics for the masses

I wanted to try out Honda’s DCT technology, which was a much different approach to automatic transmission than a traditional scooter’s CVT drivetrain. Like a scoot, the NC750X was great in city traffic, though it felt a bit like a Corolla—quite refined and easy-shifting, but lacking in umph and excitement. Not a surprise, since it was designed with a smooth ride with maximum fuel efficiency in mind.

Once in the country, the bike didn’t have any problem keeping up with the pack. It felt a lot like my old Aprilia Scarabeo 200 scooter, but with firmer suspension and waaay more power. With each sweep and twist, my reservations about the bike quickly faded. I was having fun and rode more aggressively, even testing the ABS brakes a few times when things got a little too spirited, as the DCT offers little in engine braking. By the time I had to return the Honda, I knew I’d miss it a little.

Keeping up with the pack. I think of my riding crew as "The Challengers of the Unknown"

So how does it compare to my Yamaha? Like apples and oranges. While the TMAX is scrappy, loud, and punchy, the NC750 is smooth and almost gentlemanly, with its 250cc power advantage as the equalizer.

THE ROADS

It’s curious how, given my enthusiasm for being on two wheels, that the bulk of my riding has been limited to the straight grids of the GTA, occasionally super slabbing it on day trips. To me, the definition of an exciting road was Twyn Rivers in Pickering or Forks Of The Credit in Caledon. On occasion, 16 kilometres of twisties on River Road on the way to Creemore bordered on what my shooting pal Wobblycat would describe as a “bikegasm”… But once we got to Ontario’s Highlands region, everything reset in my mind. The standards changed. 

Getting way out of the city means this is what your parking spot looks like

Imagine a place where every road leaves a shit-eating grin on your face. Where the worst road is hands-above the best you’ve travelled before it. Roads that entice you to lean more into the kinks, bends, and dives. To twist the throttle just that little bit more, as the wind whispers in your helmeted ears that even better things are just beyond the next curve…

Sometime during the tail-end of a full day’s ride, I entered a state where all my senses were aligned with my bike’s movements, enjoying each sweeper in a manner that can only be described as sublime. Even the sudden monsoon that hit before I could put on rain gear became a surreal show as the blacktop yielded steam, escaping the confines of the hot tarmac, and slowly levitating to reunite with the moisture above.

Instameeting Instapals

As we pulled back into the Bonnie View Inn, our home-away-from-home, I was completely adrenalized. Didn’t notice (or care) how saddle-sore I was. I’d also realized that my picture-taking and Instagramming was kept to a minimum. It seemed that the road told me to get out from behind the screen and just immerse myself in the moment.

A dirty bike is a happy bike

Two weeks later, as I write this, I’m still buzzing. And telling every downtown biker I run into about the best roads I’ve ridden. “You’ll have to come back with me,” I keep saying. And I mean it; I plan to spend a lot of time riding the Highlands.

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