Bikes

Motorcycle Kickstands Down – It’s Story Time

Do you like public speaking? The view from the stage. (Anders T. Carlson/)

The most mundane motorcycle trip can involve anything from harrowing experiences to minor victories. It’s like fishing that way, except not boring or stationary, and with lots more leather. Things usually happen just once, but telling the story lets us relive it and make sense of it. It’s how we simultaneously cheat death along with time and space.

If you couldn’t tell stories about riding, would you keep riding? Probably. But it wouldn’t be as much fun without sharing wild exaggerations or understated observations about what we just rode through or how we survived it.

Blah Blah Blah Motorcycles was founded in 2018 to celebrate the kinship between riders. More importantly, the storytelling program provides a forum for swapping stories from the road, garage, and parts between. Its founder comes from a long line of riders, from motorcycle cop to WERA racer.

Though her family had ridden for three generations, Season Clauss was a latecomer to motorcycles. But a Suzuki GZ250 got her started through her first 4 years of riding in Vermont and Colorado before being sold before a move to Southeast Asia. She kept on riding 110cc machines and racking up stories until returning stateside 5 years ago. Previously a bit of a loner, Clauss immersed herself in the Windy City’s motorcycling community, where the “blah blah blah” part came in; they don’t call it the Windy City for nothing.

The name Blah Blah Blah Motorcycles was inspired by a former boyfriend’s long-windedness and a Gary Larson cartoon about dogs. Bottom line, motorcyclists love to talk about motorcycles, whether anyone cares or not. BBBM is a bit like the Moth Radio Hour, or even TED Talks without the annoying “thought leadership” angle. And obviously, it’s all about motorcycles.

On October 15th six eloquent members of Chicago’s motorcycling community, and the ineloquent writer of this story, got up on the stage of the legendary Hideout Club to share tales of occasional woe, unlikely triumphs, and other poignant experiences. Storytellers were asked to talk about anything having to do with a “first” as far as riding. They didn’t disappoint. Here’s the short version of their stories.

Oh, the place you’ll go and hopefully survive.

Oh, the place you’ll go and hopefully survive. (Anders T. Carlson/)

HELEN TORNQUIST

Anyone who spent 10 months riding 30,000 miles around South America on a Honda 250 Enduro can probably sell a few motorcycles. Thinking the same, Helen Tornquist took a summer job at Des Plaines Honda.

But some folks (read: middle-aged men) weren’t buying it, literally. She sold a measly three bikes in her first 28 days and was about to get canned. But the day she was set to clean out her desk, she sold five bikes and got deposits on two more. Wisely, they kept her around a bit longer. She went on to sell a bike a day for the next month for a total of 37 bikes in 60 days.

Her secret? A sudden realization that she could “walk like a man” earned her the nickname “Helen the Sellin’ Machine”. A self described introvert, she used the same grit that helped her fix broken chains atop Peruvian mountain passes to put buyers on machines, macho customers notwithstanding.

ANDERS CARLSON (THE AUTHOR)

On the subject of “firsts,” I discussed my first motorcycle, first cross-country trip, and the first “race bike” I built. The talk was titled “Things I have f–ked up.” It was a Greatest Hits compilation of poor choices, miscalculations and delusions of grandeur.

The point was to make people laugh and deflate the self-serious puffery that so often characterizes motorcycle culture. Folks who say they’ve never dropped a bike or broken down aren’t telling a story; they’re lying. Life’s more fun when we confront our own stupidity with the same courage we display when riding. F–cking up is one of the fastest ways to learn anything.

Motorcyclist highly unrecommends getting rear-ended, as storyteller Gail Swanson did.

Motorcyclist highly unrecommends getting rear-ended, as storyteller Gail Swanson did. (Anders T. Carlson/)

ERIC SHROPSHIRE

Running a boutique dealership for high-end cars and bikes puts an emphasis on pairing a discerning driver (or rider) with the right machine. But what about that perfect passenger?

Eric’s story had little to do with an exotic machine. Instead, it was about the perfect passenger and perfect ride, if only for a weekend. Eric doesn’t like passengers or group rides. A self-described sport tourer and adrenaline junkie, he’s used to life above 6,000 rpm.

Though reluctant to take on inexperienced passengers, Eric relented one summer weekend and headed into the countryside with a lady he’d just met. It wasn’t an opening stanza to a budding romance, nor the beginning to a lifelong friendship. It was simply a perfect ride, with a passenger who instinctively understood and loved Eric’s aggressive riding style.

Lonely roads are meant for kindred souls: the right road trip can change everything.

Lonely roads are meant for kindred souls: the right road trip can change everything. (Johanneke Kroesbergen-Kamps/)

MIKE MUELLER

As owner and proprietor of Chicago’s Federal Moto, Mike is used to making up solutions on the fly. Whether it’s finishing a custom build the night before a big show or fixing a bike he didn’t know existed before hitting his shop, he rolls with the punches. Naturally, he took the stage with no idea what he was going to say.

He made a spot decision to talk about his first bike. It was an $800 non-running 1977 Honda CB750 bought expressly against his parents’ wishes. He arrived at the seller’s place in a truck without a ramp to load it, and he didn’t have anywhere to store it. But a stranger helped him get the bike loaded, and soon he was headed to whatever storage facility answered his panicked call from the road. His parents finally discovered his secret motorcycle, he braced for a minor family crisis. His mom’s first words? “Wow, that’s f–cking cool.” Parents can surprise you.

It’s a long story: great tales come from valiant but misguided efforts.

It’s a long story: great tales come from valiant but misguided efforts. (Anders T. Carlson/)

JILL SANDMIRE

Did your first big bike trip go smoothly? Boring. Great tales come from uncertainty, mistakes and perseverance. Babe’s Moto Lounge founder Jill had never taken any kind of long ride. Tired of unsolicited opinions and advice from her male riding friends, Jill planned her own trip to the annual Babes in Motoland women’s ride and campout, held on the far side of Illinois (like the dark side of the Moon, but flatter). She hoped her 250cc Rebel was good for a couple hundred miles.

Then it rained. A lot. Having removed the front fender for aesthetic reasons, Jill confronted a giant rooster tail of water from in front of her bike, forcing a hasty retreat back to Chicago. The next day, Jill got back on the horse and gutted out the ride to meet several hundred women she barely knew.

Now a veteran of dozens of long trips (and having upgraded to a Triumph Bobber), the trip was a turning point in her life. She made lifelong friends in a matter of hours and accomplished “The Thing” she didn’t think possible. The right road trip can reset your life.

The official 4-letter word of first-time mechanics everywhere.

The official 4-letter word of first-time mechanics everywhere. (Anders T. Carlson/)

GAIL SWANSON

Everyone deserves to own their dream bike at least once in their life. Gail’s 2019 Moto Guzzi V7iii Special was the result of much dreaming and no small amount of sacrifice. Unfortunately, we also get breaks we don’t deserve. For example, a not-so-funny thing happens when a car hits your motorcycle.

As Gail tells it, suddenly you’re not holding anything except an imaginary set of handlebars. And the handlebars you were holding are now several feet in front of you. Gail had been rear-ended on Lake Shore Drive by an inattentive driver, and her next adventure, though unwanted, had begun. Like most hard-luck stories, they reveal hidden bits of chance, fortune and well, luck. An accident is a great way to find out who your friends really are. And it shows the power of the riding community.

KINGA TANAJEWSKA

Well known for her On Her Bike project and YouTube videos of her travels, Kinga Tanajewska started her “Are We There Yet?” tour in 2017. Aside from the seat of her BMW F800GS, Tanajewska hasn’t called anywhere home since. Originally from Poland, she worked in northwest Australia for a number of years before the road called.

Her story? Her first solo ride around Australia began with plenty of warnings about what not to do and where not to do it. Danger, and dangerous people, were apparently everywhere. But then she started meeting other travelers, people were just as nice as she was. Turns out those cautionary tales came from people whose travels were mostly imaginary. Moral of the story? People try to dissuade you from doing what scares them.

The inaugural BBBM Storytelling event will shortly be taking a trip of its own. The next event (time, date, location TBD) is happening in Louisville, KY in early 2023. Smart move. There’s no shortage of stories about riding, wrenching and occasional redemption out there. All you need are tables and chairs, some beverages and a willing audience.

Aspiring storytellers and lovers of good stories can get more info at https://www.blahblahblahmotorcycles.com.

The storytellers, clockwise L-R: Jill Sandmire, Eric Shropshire, Helen Tornquist, Kinga Tanajewska, Mike Muller, Anders T. Carlson, Gail Swanson.

The storytellers, clockwise L-R: Jill Sandmire, Eric Shropshire, Helen Tornquist, Kinga Tanajewska, Mike Muller, Anders T. Carlson, Gail Swanson. (Anders T. Carlson/)

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