- The bike: Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic
- Profession: Science journalist and author
- Age: 61
- Hometown: Wingham, Ont.
- Gemini-winning host and writer of the children’s series Head’s Up, also hosted Greatest Canadian Invention and Wonderstruck.
- Host of Quirks and Quarks, CBC Radio, Saturdays at noon, Mondays at 11 p.m. and Wednesdays at 3 p.m. (ET).
- Live Quirks & Quarks Question Show in Calgary on June 7.
For more than three decades, Bob McDonald has educated the public about science, turning the complex issues into simple explanations. McDonald hosts CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks, the award-winning science program with nearly half-a-million listeners, and is CBC TV’s chief science correspondent.
On air, he’s professional and down-to-earth. But when it’s quitting time, he throws caution to the wind and hits the open road on two wheels instead of four. His ride is a 2007 Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic motorcycle.
Why did you buy a Harley?
It’s my 15th bike in what is my 45th year of driving. I started in 1967.
What sparked your interest in riding?
My brother. I wasn’t doing very well in school and he had this grungy little 50-cc Honda scooter that he said I could have if I passed. So I passed and got the bike and that started me on this ride.
I’ve been driving motorcycles longer than cars and I’ve had more motorcycles than cars.
What else have you owned?
I’ve had just about every kind of bike you can imagine. I worked my way from the small to the big.
I’ve had Hondas, Yamahas, and Kawasakis, German bikes, British bikes. Never owned a Harley so I thought I’ll see what it’s like. This is my second Harley and they’re kind of neat.
What does a Harley say about you?
Most people probably look at it and say, ‘Oh there’s another old geezer on a Harley.’
I hope it says I’m a serious rider who really goes places. But I know, unfortunately with the image of a Harley, it looks like people who don’t actually go anywhere.
Frankly I don’t care. I just like being out there.
I used to laugh at Harleys. I didn’t like the image that goes with Harley and I don’t buy into that sort of outlaw thing. To me, it’s just a way to get around.
I like motorcycling as a way to see the country and the continent because you’re always outside. It feels like you’re taking an extended walk across the country when you do it with a bike.
And you have a different relationship with a motorcycle than you do with a car. A car, you’re in it and it throws you around when you go around corners, but a bike becomes a part of you. It takes all four limbs to operate it and it responds to your body movements. It’s very graceful.
I think it’s the closest thing to flight you can get without leaving the ground. It’s very special to be outside cruising on a beautiful day, a winding road, nobody ahead of you, good pavement and beautiful scenery.
How does your Harley compare to the other bikes you’ve owned?
To the Japanese bikes, it is smaller, less powerful and shakes a lot more. But it’s a very comfortable ride.
I haven’t had any maintenance problems at all and my last trip was 15,000 kilometres. It didn’t bother my back at all whereas on other bikes I usually come back half crippled. …
It’s also very stable. It has a very good riding position. It has a long centre of gravity, so it likes to stay upright. It’s not bothered by crosswinds or big trucks. Those are important when you’re doing the long distance.
The other thing that’s funny about it is the way it shakes. When you’re sitting at a stop light it almost rattles your eyeballs, but they’re supposed to do that.
Where did you ride for 15,000 km?
I did Toronto to Denver and then I followed the Rocky Mountains all the way back up through the big parks – the Rocky Mountain Park, Grand Teton, Yellowstone and then came up through the interior of B.C. and went all the way up to the Alaska border. Then I took the ferry down to Vancouver Island and back through Canada through Banff, Jasper and the Yellowhead route to Toronto.
It was a wonderful, long trip.
Have you had any accidents on any bikes?
Only one and I was quite young.
I was in first-year university and the person didn’t see me coming and pulled straight out in front of me.
I was on a 350 Honda. I saw it coming and I remained in control of the bike. I locked up my rear wheel, but I didn’t go down and I chose my spot to hit. I hit just ahead of the front windshield.
I ended up lying across the windshield and my lower body was still on the bike. The fender crumpled in enough to make room for my legs so I wasn’t hurt. I walked away. I realized how easy it is to be hurt.
The biggest problem in motorcycle accidents is a loose nut behind the handlebars like the idiot here in Victoria that did 300 km/h!
Any other riding mishaps?
I have some goofy stories of falling over when I wasn’t even moving.
I was on a trip coming home from Huntsville, Ala. I had been riding all day and I was on this boring interstate. A thunderstorm was coming ahead so I turned off the road and went underneath a bridge under an underpass to put on my rain suit but when I parked the bike the shoulder of the road sloped down towards the right; the kickstand is on the left.
When I got off, the bike was almost straight up. My rain suit was on the right-hand side, on the down slope side, so as I got off and went around the bike to get my rain suit, the bike just tipped over and went handle bars down, wheels up.
It was a big Kawasaki, which weighed about 800 pounds, and it was everything I could do to get it up back on its wheels. I managed to get it up but it was precariously balanced. I put on my rain suit and I went to get on my bike. And when you get on a bike, you lift it up to get it off the kickstand but because it was so upright when I pulled it over it started to tip over again, and because the shoulder sloped down so steeply when I put my foot down to stop it, my foot didn’t reach the ground and it rolled over again!
This time, I rolled off with it and way down in the bottom of the ditch going, ‘Boy, I’m glad nobody saw that.’ I had to pick it up again. I felt like a total idiot. We all have stupid days and that was a stupid day.
This interview has been edited and condensed.