It would be totally inaccurate to write that I grew up around motorcycles. Not a single person in my entire family had owned or ever ridden a motorbike. However, I did find my way to be on or around them very early on. One of the unsolved riddles of my childhood is the way my father and mother had let me made these radical choices, totally ignoring complaints and consternation of the omnipresent extended family. I was the blackest of black sheep, and in a way, I still am.
Amongst my earliest auditory memories is the whining noise of a two-cycle 50cc puny motorcycle engine buzzing below the balcony of my home by the sea. I would rush out to get a glimpse of a Simson or a Balkan screaming down Al Mina St. at the awesome speed of 60 km per hour. Most of you have never probably heard of a Simson, let alone a Balkan. The Simson, such as the one in the picture above was originally manufactured in East Germany in the 1960's. A few dozen units were sold in Syria. The Bulgarian Balkan (1958-1975) had a more streamlined body and was my favorite of the two. It took me forever on the web to find this single photo (below) of the exact model that was prevalent in Tartous back in the mid 1960's. I feel deprived for not having the chance to have ever ridden either. Yeah, I'm this sort of guy.
Some wilder beasts made their way to Lattakia around the same period and started operating as taxis.
Matchless, BSA and Triumph were the top choices and proved themselves on the streets roaring wildly and flexing their powerful muscles (up to 500cc single cylinder four stroke engines).
Believe it or not, over 40 years later, some of these British beauties are still serving commuters to villages around Lattakia.
I was able to spot a few in still immaculate and mint conditions. Regretfully, I have missed the opportunity to buy a gorgeous Triumph when the opportunity presented itself some years ago.
I first soloed on a 1964 Lambretta (above) a few months before my eleventh birthday. The bike was too heavy to control from a stationary position. Someone would lean it on the sidewalk for me. I would then engage 1st gear, rev the engine up and surge forward in a frenzied heave. To stop I would approach the sidewalk at a slight angle as if I were docking a boat and make the final contact with the sidewalk as smoothly as possible. By the way I started driving a car at roughly the same time. Tartous was a much quieter town then and there were no more than 2 or 3 policemen. The streets were practically void of cars and I had free reign over the neighborhood. But no car ever impressed me. Cars are cages on wheels and they are adequate for a group of 3 or more to get from point A to point B. It never made any sense to admire a comfortable, expensive and shiny horse carriage more than a beautiful stallion. So it is with cars and motorcycles.
I had my chance to ride a wide variety of bikes and scooters over those early years, European and Japanese. I loved the Vespa despite of its nerdish looks. "Sembra una vespa!" ("It reminds me of a wasp!") Enrico Piaggio, the president of the company exclaimed when he first laid eyes on one. It would later become the most successful scooter in history and a pop culture icon. The obvious reasons of course include comfort, storage space, ease of handling and relative protection from the elements. The Japanese were swiftly moving to take over and I got my chances with your run of the mill Hondas, Yamahas and Suzukis. I had suffered from too many minor accidents and mishaps to keep track of but it was never the bike’s mistake. It was always mine, in one way or another. Yet the learning curve follows only this example as far as motorcycles are concerned. You have to take your fall then get up again, improving, honing your skills, learning to respect the machine but never to fear it. Before I left to America, I was already very comfortable in the saddle.
On the back roads of southwestern Louisiana I got my first chance to meet face to face with the beast. A Harley-Davidson in its native environment is probably the most harmonious machine ever built by man. As I look back toward those happy years I feel disturbed when a Harley is taken out of its context. Riding a Harley anywhere else in the world is sacrilegious. God and man meant it to roam freely in the USA and nowhere else. No biking experience ever comes close to riding a Harley on America’s open highways and I had the privilege of riding in Lousiana, Texas, Arizona, California and Arkansas. I snapped my right knee on a Harley once but I was a riding in the back. The rider upfront was busted up pretty bad and was hospitalized. He's been in hospital so many times since, and somehow I always manage to be by his side.
On my trips to Europe the sight of a Harley lumbering along the rows of dull looking and efficiently compact cars gets on my nerves. The few captured Harleys in Lebanon and Syria caused me even more pain. If I were an American president, I would never allow the export of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. The truth of the matter is that a Harley is incapable of competing with either the European or Japanese brands. These are much more efficient, more reliable, safer and faster bikes. Simply put, whether I draw fire or not, a Honda is a better machine than a Harley. But this absolute truth loses its meaning on American ground, where the Harley is deservedly the king of the road.
I have been riding a 1986, 250cc Yamaha to work for more years than I care to count. But I have been riding some other impressive machines on the mountain roads of Tartous as well.
The 4-cylinder 750cc Honda Magna is hard to beat. I have no idea how the Japanese packed so much pleasure essence in its loins. It breathes in and out rhythmically like an Olympian Marathon runner. Give it some throttle and it’ll take your breath away. Recently, I started a love affair with a 600cc Honda Silver Wing scooter.
At first I felt a little embarrassed to get back to not only a scooter, but worse yet, a scooter with automatic transmission. However, after a couple of long rides with friends, my body thanked me and begged me to get one of them. It sure doesn’t offer the pure and naked pleasure of a real bike but it’s so god-damn comfortable it would be absolutely hypocrite not to admit it. I think I can do without the broken ribs and twisted fingers, without the burnt hands and dirty nails, without the dead bugs on my teeth and the maddening rain assaulting my face like cold needles.
You might all think that I’m getting too old for this shit. You’re wrong kids. I have my eyes and heart set on a Honda Forza Z. It’s a little lighter than the Silver Wing and this is exactly what I truly need. Alas, it doesn't come with the girl though.
"Too old my ass, go ahead, put something exciting between your legs!"