Why is a self-described chubby white-haired little granny still riding at 62 and intending to ride for as long as possible? Read Chrissy McDonnell’s entertaining tale of a lifetime of devotion to two and three wheels, then tell us your story about motorcycling.
Granny Chrissy’s story
I was a late starter in the motorcycling stakes only getting my licence at the age of 31 in 1987. I had four children under 9 at the time and a husband who really disliked the idea of my getting on a motorbike. We lived in Gladstone, Queensland and I learned to ride through the Queensland Road Safety Council’s Stay Upright program. The trainers would travel down on their bikes from Rockhampton on a Sunday morning to conduct our lessons in the local shopping centre carpark … no Sunday trading back then! All the other riders in my class were young men and most already had some experience riding trail bikes around on bush blocks, but me; I could barely ride a bicycle! One of the senior trainers took me aside one morning and quietly said they’d noticed I tended to steer around corners. I was baffled, how else do you make the bike turn? He tried again. “You know, you lean, like you did when you had a bike as a kid.”
“Lean? Lean! But I’ll fall over!” Anyway, I never owned a bike as a kid. He rubbed his face with frustration, rolled his eyes and asked me what I thought I was doing here then. Properly needled by now, I told him I thought I was here paying him to teach me how to ride. Which, to his credit, he did. Of course, I didn’t pass that course and wasn’t allowed out on the road ride at the end of it, but they did let me do it again for free and I passed with flying colours. At the time we even had to learn how to ride over a very narrow pivot ramp as well as the usual figure eights etc, so it was a very thorough method of teaching good skills. Our training bikes were kick-start Kawasaki trail bikes and I well remember the huge bruises on the back of my right calf from lifting my foot off too soon!
My first motorcycle was a single-cylinder Yamaha SR185 and I spent many happy early morning hours before the family woke up riding around town and down to Gladstone Harbour to watch the sun come up over the harbour islands and the dolphins play in the creek. The local takeaway shop got to know my regular order of a bacon-and-egg jaffle and a coffee which they’d cover in Glad Wrap so it wouldn’t spill in my panniers. I’d park the bike and sit on one of the picnic tables by the creek to have my brekky, soaking in the peace and dream about what adventures I might have with my motorbike once the kiddies were grown up. One small funny thing that happened was one morning after I’d taken the four kids to school, I’d intended to go for a nice ride, got myself dressed (I was very slim back then and wore black leather pants and jacket and had a silver full face helmet) and on the way out noticed my elder seven-year-old son had left his lunch on the bench. I decided I’d take it to school and put in into his schoolbag just outside his classroom. As I was tiptoeing past the classroom’s open door – helmet still on as I was wanting to make a quick getaway – one of the kids spotted me and called out “Look, Phil’s mum is a robot!”. I wasn’t the most popular person with Phil that afternoon when I again turned into his “normal” Tarago-driving mum for the school pick-up.
Well, fast forward a few years and I find myself divorced in my late 30s and starting life all over again. I soon purchased another motorbike because my husband had pressured me to get rid of my little SR180 and I’d missed it so much. My next bike was another Yamaha, this time a shaft-drive SR535 Virago, a great choice for any rider just starting out. Seats of most bikes were so very high in those days, so being only 165cm tall meant that cruisers were really the only sensible option at the time. Living in Brisbane by then, I used that little bike to commute 80km each day to and from work in the city and the money I saved on horrible public transport funded the repayments, not to mention that I saved a whopping 8-9 hours each week in door-to-door commuting time.
Fast forward another few years and my youngest was now 16 and, now aged 44, I felt free to travel and by then had a lot more income so I let my little SR535 go and in 2000 I bought a 1999 Kawasaki Vulcan Classic (VN800) with just 805km on the clock and embarked on my first ever really long trip. I mulled over it for quite a while, with all the risks and benefits rattling around in my head. I planned to attend the year 2000 Port Fairy Folk Festival in Victoria and finally realised that this huge trip was nothing more than a series of short local rides all joined up. I told myself that of course I wasn’t worried about riding from Brisbane to Byron Bay was I? No. And from Byron Bay it’s only a short ride to Grafton, and from Grafton only a little way to Coffs Harbour and so on. It was the best holiday I’d ever had. I took four weeks off work, set off on a Saturday morning and, beyond knowing I had to be in Port Fairy at a certain date for the festival, I made no plans and booked no accommodation. I just pointed the bike down the road and went. When I was hungry, I ate. When I was tired or needed to pee, I stopped. Around 2pm each day, I’d work out where I’d be by 4pm and phoned ahead to get a motel room. I didn’t have any music, just the most wonderful month of travelling through countryside, some of which was so beautiful it felt like riding through a postcard. I’ll never forget riding through national parks, winding ocean roads, twisty mountain ranges, towering forests, open plains; places so beautiful riding was a prayer. I felt completely and utterly free and at peace. To this day, getting on my bike or my trike (I still have my venerable old Kawasaki VN800, but also own a Boom Trike) brings, to quote from that old Eagles song, a “peaceful easy feeling”. A few metres into any ride, I find myself deeply sighing and settling in to that wonderful rhythm of road, wind and engine.
First long tour
Before I went on my first long tour I’d had some advice from a pair of older bikers in their 70s, advising me to only ride 45 minutes in the hour and rest for 15 minutes, regardless how I felt if I wanted to have a long and comfortable day. Of course, at 44 I just stupidly ignored them, and found myself alone in Gundagai, exactly halfway to my destination and so sore and tired, I wanted to just turn around and go home. I got something to eat, unloaded the bike, had a hot shower and sat down to plan how I was going to get to Port Fairy from Gundagai in time for the festival to start as I was very behind time. So, I wrote out a ride schedule and rode 45 minutes in every hour and rested properly for 15 minutes. I had a half hour’s rest for lunch, by now realising that once you get sore on a ride, it just won’t go away until you stop for the day and it’s all about putting off the aches as long as possible. I managed just over 600km the next day, arriving in Winchelsea in the late afternoon, and nowhere near as sore or sorry for myself as I’d been the day before. Thank you, experienced old-fart motorcyclists … love you both!
I undertook a second solo tour this time to Tasmania, riding the long way to Melbourne following the east coast and into Victoria. Tasmania is a motorcyclists’ heaven, with scenery that changes every half hour or so, and all of it so perfect that it’s hard to not think the whole place was created by a touring motorcyclists committee! I’ve remarried now and my husband is a fellow-motorcyclist and our marriage has somehow managed to survive two more long interstate motorcycling trips, one all the way to Adelaide. This was to be my Kawasaki’s last long trip as she is now getting a bit long in the tooth to be dragged around the countryside like that. Our last big trip a couple of years ago saw me riding a Boom Trike while my husband rode his motorbike behind. I looked at our three machines in the garage and, in a nod to my advancing years, decided I’d take the Boom on such a long trip and save my back, neck and shoulders. I’m not out to prove anything to anyone.
Granny is still riding
There’s no point trying to explain to any askers why, at the age of 62, I still ride and intend to do so for as long as possible. Away from my rides, I’m just a chubby, white-haired little granny driving a little old white Toyota Yaris to the shops, being bullied by people who don’t like my sticking to the speed limit and take any and every opportunity to overtake me for having the temerity to do 40km/h at roadworks. Little do they know. I’m slow on my feet nowadays, but not so on my trike or bike. It makes me smile a bit at the servo when they see my beautiful Boom Trike pull in and then see all that white hair come out from under the helmet. Motorcycling brings me such joy. It keeps me young in heart and mind, sharp in my wits and reflexes and (this one is a bit harder to put into words) I remain part of a cohort of similarly minded people who you might not know, but you know are always there … that little wave, or nod, or lift of a finger. You look into the eyes of another motorcyclist and you know what they know, that there’s nothing like the magic of being one with your machine and the adventures which are always around the next corner. And, you know, life nowadays can be so comfortable and easy, so it’s always a good thing to be challenged and do something that sometimes scares you a bit.