Laureen Harper is planning to hit the road on May 3.
But the Prime Minister’s wife isn’t climbing onto a campaign bus or lacing up her trainers for a charity run. Instead, she’s pulling out her Yamaha XT225 dirt bike and joining International Female Ride Day — a day when women around the world get on their bikes and ride.
Growing up on a ranch in Turner Valley, Alta., Harper drove all manner of bikes and vehicles, including a tractor when extra help was needed.
And it’s fitting that Just Ride! is the motto of Friday’s global day of action, since that’s exactly what she did eight years ago.
“I was out walking in the spring and somebody drove by on a motorcycle,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘I want to motorcycle again.’ ”
It had been about 20 years since she sold her teenage ride: A Honda XL185 that she bought as a Grade 11 student.
“My kids were — I think my daughter was 6 or something — and I thought, ‘You know what? That looks like a lot of fun.’ ”
But when she went to a local motorcycle shop, she found there wasn’t much demand for the dual-sport bike she wanted. There were dirt bikes and street bikes, but few on/off-road options.
“They didn’t have the old Enduro kind that (I) liked, so I did some research and Yamaha had to ship my bike all the way from Japan,” she says. “There’s lots of smaller street bikes and really fast ones that a lot of the guys drive. I’m not interested in that.”
Her 223-cc Yamaha is lightweight, with a single-cylinder, four-stroke engine (6-speed with a manual clutch).
“I don’t really drive it too much on the highway. It’s not big enough, it’s very light. It only weighs 243 pounds dry, so if someone too big goes beside me, I can get blown off the road,” she says.
The outdoor enthusiast says she was happy when her new bike arrived, promptly taking it out to CFB Rockcliffe, a former army base in Ottawa where she found “all sorts of fun places to go.”
She now likes to ride the winding and picturesque country roads north of the capital in Gatineau. Back home in Alberta, she borrows a bike and hits the trails with friends and family.
As a kid, she learned to ride by tooling around on a Pee Wee, a 50cc mini bike, riding over the gently rolling foothills southwest of Calgary — at one time the largest oil and gas production site in the commonwealth and home to a section of the old cowboy trail.
She got her first bike at 12 years of age. “I remember going into Blackfoot Motorcycle in Calgary,” she recalls of the trip with her father, who was an electrician and bike enthusiast. “My brother and I got a Honda XL75.”
If sharing a motorbike with a sibling sounds like a recipe for disaster, Harper says she quickly took over the bike when her younger brother Darryl moved on to his homemade go-kart, powered by a 5-hp Briggs and Stratton engine.
Riding across the ranch land or up along logging roads in the Rockies, her group of family and friends relished adventure.
“We would build little jumps and we would go up through ditches and make little jumps and stuff like that; we had a lot of fun — a lot of fun,” she says.
Like the horseback rider who isn’t considered seasoned until they’ve been tossed off, you’re not a true dirt-bike rider until you’ve eaten some mud.
“I’ve fallen off many times,” Harper says. “Just little crashes — when you’re young, you do dumb little things, but nothing really, really major at all. The only thing was a coyote ran in front of me once and I hit him. I don’t know who was more surprised; me or the coyote. But he was fine, I was fine.”
In the pre-ATV era, mini bikes and dirt bikes were common. Harper, who will turn 50 this summer, says everyone had motorcycles. As a teen, they rode off-road bikes like the more powerful XL185 she bought when she turned 16.
“When you’re on a motorcycle, it feels like you’re really driving, because each hand is doing something, each foot is doing something, so you’re totally in tune. It isn’t like steering a car that’s automatic; when you’re on a motorcycle you’re shifting, you’re watching the RPMs.”
And forget about distracted driving, she adds.
“You have to make sure that other people don’t make mistakes — not only don’t you make mistakes, but you have to watch for when other people don’t see you. Or they swerve around, or they’re talking on the phone and don’t see you; you have to watch out for them.”
These days, she’s happy with her Yamaha and its heated handlebars and grips. Helmet-hair aside, it’s a great workout.
“It’s very physical,” she says. “By the end of the day, my shoulders are sooo tired. I’m jealous of the upper-body strength of a man; it’s just exhausting.”
“Usually, if I fall over or crash, it’s because I’m going too slow,” she adds. “I notice the men just fly through. I’m just a little more cautious, so I slow down. And they’re (saying), ‘Don’t slow down!’
“I need that extra testosterone and strength or something like that. They crash because they go too fast and do stupid things. I crash because I’m not going fast enough. I’m just not aggressive enough.”
A photographer and graphic artist who ran her own business before she moved to Ottawa, Harper is encouraged to see women working on local road crews in Ottawa or behind the wheel of giant trucks in Fort McMurray.
“(When) you see a woman running a big earthmover or one of those big trucks, it makes me smile,” she says.
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