COAL: 2004 Kawasaki Ninja 500R – Second Go At A Starter Bike

Ninja 2
Having learned far more than I had expected from my first motorcycle, I made a wise choice and bought something far more suited to my novice skills for my second bike. It’s funny, because when an acquaintance told me he was moving to Costa Rica for a year and needed to unload his Kawasaki Ninja, I did not picture the motorbike you see above. I pictured a full-on crotch rocket like my former roommate’s Ninja ZX-6R, which I had the thrill to ride once. Nonetheless, when I was offered the baby Ninja for $3000 in the autumn of 2008, I jumped at it. The time had come to give up adventuring solo in the back-country and begin exploring BC’s beautiful scenery on its smooth, twisty highways. 


Ninja 1

This four-year-old bike had all of 7000 kms on it and had been well taken care of. I took it for a ride around the block and was impressed with not only how easy it was to ride, but how (relatively) comfortable it was. Also, it was at that point by far the newest and lowest mileage vehicle I had ever owned so I figured at worst, I could re-sell it in the spring for a profit.

A week later I would take it on a quick three-hour road trip to Calgary for a concert. Despite the heavy rain and 5°C weather, the bike did very well, and was a joy on the highway compared to my old dirt bike. Its 50 hp and 400 lb weight made it quick but not overly fast, and most importantly, its more upright seating position made it far more comfortable than a crotch rocket or my too-tall dirt bike. My inflexible 6′ tall frame was pushed to the limits of its bend-ability due to the bike’s smaller size, but I got used to it. It was then that I realized that I wouldn’t be selling this bike in the spring; instead I would take it on a grand solo road trip of BC.

Ninja 3

By that time I had lived in BC for two years and had explored most of the southern highways. It was time for me to head north and explore the lesser known areas. I had secured two weeks off from work and the plan was to ride from my home in Invermere, BC to the Haida Gwaii Islands off the northern coast of BC. My very modest budget required that I restrict any paid accommodations to tent camping and keep eating out to a minimum. I had a change of clothes in my backpack, water, some food, a tent, a sleeping bag, a hatchet, a road map, a crappy little stove; that’s all I needed.

Ninja 4

My plan was very open; there were no set dates, and anything that caught my eye was explored. Since I covered 5300 kms over two weeks, my pace was quick, and the only two days I didn’t ride were spent taking a 7 hour ferry passage across the treacherous waters to Haida Gwaii. It was July and daylight hours last roughly from 6 am to 11 pm, so I figured I might as well cram as much riding as possible into my trip. The bike got between 50-60 mpg,  which meant about 300 kms between fills. Any longer and my hips and knees may have been permanently stuck in the fully folded position.

Ninja 5

The scenery was amazing and I highly recommend it to anyone. But I wasn’t doing this trip for the scenery, I was doing it for the ride. There’s nothing like enjoying a beautiful summer day in the open air on a motorcycle. Feeling the temperature cool as you approach a glacier-fed creek, following a river as it widens and eventually reaches the ocean, these are the kinds of things that are best experienced on a bike.

Nisga'a Hwy

On that note, I would like to nominate the Nisga’a Highway (BC #113) as the best hidden gem of motorcycle highway in North America. I’ve ridden (or driven) many of the highways often listed on “best of” lists, and none of them compare to this highway, chiefly due to a complete lack of traffic. What good is a steep and twisty highway if you’re stuck behind an RV going 30 km/hr? When I was up there the only other traffic was a German family in a rental motorhome. I didn’t see a single police officer over its 158 km length.

I’m not saying it’s great because you can fly around at ridiculous speeds; you might well die. It is the by far the twistiest paved road I’ve ever seen, not just side to side, but up and down as well. All the bridges that cross the many creeks are single lane only and the sight lines aren’t the best. The highway follows the ever-widening Nass River as it reaches the ocean while passing through a bunch of First Nations Reserves full of friendly locals. It also passes through the site of a massive volcanic eruption that happened 300 years ago, truly the strangest natural scenery I’ve ever seen.

Ninja 6

The above picture was taken shortly after the one and only time I dropped this bike. Obviously, riding a street bike on the beach is a stupid idea. I was emboldened by the fact that I had reached Mile 0 of the Yellowhead Highway and decided to press on 20 kms down the gravel road to the campground on the coast. Once at the coast I saw tire tracks and figured I may as well continue as far as I could. That turned out to be about 50 feet. Oops.

Ninja 9

The trip was a great success; not only had I explored beautiful unknown territory, but I had birthed a love for the motorcycle and the open road. It wouldn’t be complete however without detailing a minor inconvenience that occurred whilst trying to escape the frigid rain one afternoon towards the end of the trip.

I’m not normally a speeder, but if given the opportunity and what I think to be an un-patrolled area, I will exploit it, especially on a bike. After a couple of days of light rain and cool temperatures (I had no rain gear) I was shivering uncontrollably, about 50 kms from the nearest town. Seeing rain clouds on the horizon, I just wanted to get to town and warm up. I hunkered down into a tuck on my bike and decided to crank it up to 130 km/hr, as sight lines were great and I could see cops from any angle.

As I was seamlessly passing cars on the two lane highway, I started noticing that cars in the opposite lane were pulling over on the shoulder to let me pass. Northern folks sure are courteous! Since I didn’t want to leave my (slightly less cold) tuck, I was only using shoulder checks to pass and not my mirrors, and didn’t notice the cop car about 5 feet behind me. My iPod was probably a factor in my not hearing his sirens and horns as well. Once I finally pulled over, the police officer was very angry with me. He exclaimed that he was minutes away from calling for reinforcements and demanded to know where I had stolen the bike. In the end, it cost a good chunk of change, and I never rode with an iPod again.

Ninja 10

Once home, I felt the need to share my new-found love of the open road with my girlfriend. As this pic demonstrates, 2 people and their camping gear is a lot of weight to heap on a small bike. This became particularly evident as we approached our destination of Waterton National Park in southern Alberta. The foothills of southern Alberta are notoriously windy and pushed us all over the road. I had to lean hard into a cross wind and was using the entire lane to compensate for wind gusts. While my lovely girlfriend loved the ride and the view, she made me aware that the tiny backseat was not a comfortable place to be.

Ninja 8

I put 8000 kms on the bike that summer, but it was becoming clear that I would need something bigger and more comfortable, especially for my favourite passenger. I don’t remember the bike needing any work, other than regular maintenance and tightening up all the nuts and bolts in the fairing once I had returned from my big northern trip. I rode it until the snow hit in December and sold it the following spring for a bit more than I had paid for it. I couldn’t have asked for a better second starter bike. My next motorbike would be a bigger, more comfortable highway cruiser that I still have.