Rally Fever

Story by Uwe Wachtendorf// Photos by Uwe Wachtendorf
October 1 2011

Three rallies in three weekends

Nestled among the beef jerky salesmen and aromatherapy vendors of every motorcycle show are the booths promoting charitable rallies. The variety and number of the causes that they support appear to double with every passing year, something that has left me scratching my head; are rallies such a popular pastime, or have motorcyclists become a rich vein for fundraisers to mine? Having only ever participated in one charity rally – twenty-five years ago, when the novelty of riding in a large group had piqued my interest – it was clearly time to revisit the fundraising scene and see what all the fuss was about.

With a plan to fully immerse myself in rally culture, I foolhardily signed up for three rallies over three weekends. Not only did they span the extremes of size and history, but each of their causes was of personal significance to me.

Familiar with the hardships of military life abroad and the importance of a nation supporting its troops, I chose the Heroes Highway Ride and Rally (HHR) as my first outing. Now into its third year, the free-to-participate HHR takes a non-traditional approach to rally fundraising. Lou DeVuono, along with members of the Perfect Pigs motorcycle club, founded the rally on the premise that it’s not only important to raise money for a worthy cause, but also to support Canadian troops. “While there’s been a huge outpouring of support for our fallen soldiers, Canadians were not providing the same for those returning from a tour of duty,” explained DeVuono. “We made the HHR a free event because you shouldn’t have to pay for the opportunity to support our troops.”

Organized on a tight budget with little publicity, the inaugural HHR in 2009 still managed to draw 180 motorcyclists. However, in just one year the event had grown exponentially, and in 2010 it attracted 1,600 motorcyclists and 2,500 rally visitors. The unexpected turnout overwhelmed organizers, but also made DeVuono aware of the rally’s importance. “By bringing the public and military together, the rally demonstrates firsthand that Canadians care and are supporting these brave individuals,” he said. “It also gives soldiers a chance to share their stories, which is a great morale booster.”

The HHR kicks off with a welcome party for long-distance visitors the night before the ride. The following morning, a pre-ride breakfast sets the stage before riders depart on a police-escorted parade past CFB Trenton and along the Highway of Heroes (Highway 401 between Trenton and Toronto). The ride ends at the rally site, which features vendors, stunt demonstrations and live bands.

The charity aspect of the HHR depends on voluntary donations from participants, which go to National Portraits of Honour, the Toronto Military Family Resource Centre, and Wounded Warriors, a registered Canadian charity that supports troops suffering from operational stress injuries and transports injured soldiers receiving medical therapy. The HHR also collects non-perishable food items for the food banks servicing the communities that host the event.

My motorcycle for all three rallies was Harley-Davidson’s new Blackline, a bare-bones Softail that doesn’t have enough room to carry a toothbrush. Aside from an uncomfortable seat, it turned out to be an excellent choice, even though I had to carry everything in a backpack. With space at a premium, I left my rain gear at home and foolishly relied on the weatherman’s prediction of isolated showers. The decision set the tone for the day; within ten minutes of my arrival at the start point, the thick grey carpet that hung overhead opened and riders everywhere scrambled to the sides of buildings to keep dry.

Allowed to ride in the HHR spearhead, I formed up behind an escort OPP officer whose gold helmet was emblazoned with “Happy Gilmore.” Before I could ask him whether he was a lousy hockey player, a haphazard golfer, or had been in a fistfight with Bob Barker, the ride set out. Within a kilometre, cold water began to soak my crotch, while a steady trickle filled my boots; it felt like I was slowly wading into an icy lake.

Although the misery of being cold and wet sapped my enthusiasm, my spirit was lifted by the sight of the colour guard waiting for us at CFB Trenton and by the many waving onlookers that lined the sidewalks and bridges of our route. I was not the only one suffering from the conditions, and attrition began to take a toll as more and more riders broke away from the parade, either to head home or to find shelter from the elements. Barely able to move my fingers, I finally bade farewell at the off-ramp to the rally site.

Although my first rally experience had been a literal wash, the inclement weather wasn’t enough to prevent the HHR from experiencing more monumental growth. DeVuono estimated that around 3,000 bikes started the ride in Belleville and that over $30,000 was raised this year by the event.

Without any chance of rain, I looked forward to the Ride for Sight (RFS), a goliath charity ride that is the envy of all other fundraisers. It was the thirty-third iteration of the ride in Ontario, making it the longest-running event of its kind in Canada.

RFS was founded in 1979, when Jim Bentley and the York Wing Motorcycle Club started a charity ride to benefit the RP Research Foundation (now the Foundation Fighting Blindness (FFB)). Bentley was motivated by a friend and fellow motorcyclist who had been diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, and in its fledgling year, Bentley and his friends managed to raise $8,000. Since that humble beginning, the RFS has not only become a national event, but also the single largest fundraiser for vision research in the world. Bentley is still active with the charity today and truly embodies the fundraiser’s slogan: “Ride for Sight, because you can.” Tragically, Syd Collier, another long-time organizer and key contributor to the ride’s success, passed away earlier this year after a thirty-year involvement with the charity.

Using a traditional method of fundraising, RFS requires ride participants to raise a minimum of $75 (in Ontario) from friends and colleagues. Upon doing so, they are allowed to join in the weekend’s ride and rally, which includes live music and camping. To date, RFS has raised over $19 million to combat retinitis pigmentosa, macular degeneration and related retinal eye diseases, which is why I chose it as one of the rallies to attend. Macular degeneration, a medical condition affecting the retina which causes a loss of central vision, is something both my mother and father-in-law are currently suffering from.

The ride (or parade) portion of the Central Ontario RFS starts in Vaughan on the northern boundary of Toronto and concludes in Orillia, making it roughly a 150 km ride. It was the complete opposite of my first rally; the scorching heat of a resplendent sun was textbook perfect for riding a motorcycle, but after only five minutes on the road, the well-organized conga line came to a grinding halt. Apparently, one of the riders at the front had collided with a car. After our police escort had taken care of the situation, we were underway again – that is, until 15 minutes later, when a rider stalled his sportbike and couldn’t get it restarted. Instead of riding around him and keeping the group together, the riders around him remained motionless until the sportbike finally fired to life.

Having lost the lead group, several police bikes thankfully turned up and herded us like border collies corralling lost cattle. The massive length of our caravan paralyzed normal traffic, and as drivers resigned themselves to waiting, many held camera phones out their windows to capture proof of the spectacle. The route took us through many small towns, and the parade flowed well until we neared Orillia, where everything fell apart. An inexplicable absence of police escorts in Barrie resulted in chaos; with every traffic light contributing to the decimation of our ranks, I eventually found myself riding in a small group that had no idea where it had to go. Incredibly, after starting a ride among thousands of motorcycles, the remaining riders in my group branched off in different directions, and I was suddenly riding alone with no idea where I was.

For the next half hour, I enjoyed riding lost, and eventually I found the RFS rally grounds. After wandering through the vendors’ area, I explored the campground, which was like nothing that I had imagined. The sheer number and density of tents resembled a vacant lot under the control of squatters, and as I walked through the area, vivid memories of the early issues of Easyriders came to mind. Everywhere people seemed to be enjoying themselves, whether they were getting a tattoo in the back of a U-Haul truck or partaking in the wacky tobacky that could on occasion be smelt in the air.

Having had my fill of the crowds and party atmosphere, I pulled on my helmet and headed off for another ride on the Blackline. I was impressed by the size and scope of Ride for Sight; it was clearly a vibrant fundraiser with many enthusiastic regulars. Among the various RFS rides taking place in four provinces (Alberta, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Newfoundland), my Central Ontario ride raised over half a million dollars, over half of the national donations that the FFB expects will total around $900,000 this year.

Ride for Dog Guides

For my final rally, I picked a newcomer, and one that indulged my love of dogs. The Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides is a national charity that provides service dogs to Canadians with various disabilities. In operation since 1983, Dog Guides has trained more than 1,700 dogs in their Oakville and Breslau facilities in Ontario. The costs involved in training, transporting and kennelling a guide dog – a substantial $20,000 per dog – is solely funded by the Foundation’s fundraising efforts and donations from individuals, clubs and corporations. None of these expenses are passed on to the unfortunate person who needs the assistance a guide dog can provide, and the Foundation doesn’t receive any government assistance.

Service dogs are trained to fill one of five different roles: Canine Vision dogs assist their blind or visually impaired owners, Hearing Ear dogs help the deaf or hard of hearing, Seizure Response dogs are paired with people who have epilepsy, Special Skills dogs aid the physically disabled, and Autism Assistance dogs support autistic children between the ages of 4 and 12. Labrador retrievers, standard poodles and golden retrievers are the most commons breeds used, and it takes four to six months of intensive one-on-one training before they’re ready for assignment. Once successfully trained, each dog is matched with a special-needs person, who will spend several weeks living at the Oakville training facility while learning how to work with their new companion.

Although this year’s Ride for Dog Guides marked the first time that the Lion’s Foundation has held a motorcycle-specific fundraiser, their annual Walk for Dog Guides has raised over $9 million over the years. Heather Fowler is a professional fundraiser and the driving force behind the Ride for Guide Dogs. “Although I don’t ride, I think it’s an excellent way to bring in new donors to the charity,” she said. “In my experience, motorcyclists are very charitable people, especially when it comes to assisting children. They’re often dog lovers too, so our staff were excited about this new event and looked forward to seeing all the bikes roll in.”
With approximately 60 motorcycles confirmed for the ride, I arrived at the Foundation’s head office in Oakville and joined an informative tour of their training operation conducted by Heather’s husband Chris, who heads their Autism Assistance dog program.

Unlike the other two rallies, Ride for Dog Guides was a Poker Run. I received a playing card at the start of the ride, and another at each of the three subsequent rest stops, in the hope of building a good poker hand. Refreshments were provided at each stop, and the route, which was created by Mojo reader Tom Moreau, traced a scenic path through the Ontario countryside. With an option to ride alone or as part of a group, I tried both, and while on my own, found the directions easy to follow. It was a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend the day riding for a cause, and probably the least intimidating for those with concerns about riding in large groups.

Other commitments prevented me from riding the final leg of the run, but considering I was only holding a 2, 4, 10 and a Jack, it was probably best that I folded my hand. At the final stop in Breslau, I missed out on a barbeque, silent auction, music and puppy petting. I really regretted missing the puppy petting. A few days after the ride, I received an email from Fowler stating that the event had raised close to $7,000 and had been deemed a success. The amount of money raised was modest – not even half that required to train just one dog – but it’s a beginning, one similar to that experienced by Ride for Sight. Although massed rides such as the Ride for Sight and Heroes Highway have a “wow” factor, the intimacy of this start-up rally had a wonderfully relaxing vibe.

I’m still undecided whether fundraisers see motorcyclists as a generous bunch or an easy mark, but one thing is certain: the increase in the number of rallies over the years coincides with the increasing age of the average rider. Mature riders are more likely to respond to the needs of charities and also typically have enough disposable income to support them. I do lament that there’s a need for charity rides in the first place. Canadians are already well bled by their government for money; imagine if only some of the tax money that is squandered every day were given to needy causes instead.

Even if you’re the most misanthropic rider who ever sported a chain-secured wallet, please consider participating in at least one rally a year. Ride because you can, for those who can’t. I’m already looking forward to next year; after all, how hard could it be to draw three of a kind?


Copyright ©2002-2024 Motorcycle Mojo | Privacy Policy | Built by Gooder Marketing