It was something as simple as a photo of Jon Hamm, dressed in a vintage suit, perched on a classic motorbike, that set Mark Hawwa of on a course of action that would change his life, and the lives of thousands more, forever.
“I created a motorcycle group, and then I saw a picture of Don Draper, from Mad Men. He was gracing the front cover of GQ magazine, and he was in a beautiful, timeless suit on a classic vintage motorcycle. For me, I just looked at the image and thought ‘well this is a really cool image. I want to be that. I want to dress up like that. I want to ride a bike dressed up like that'” Mark tells us.
What started as a collective of motorcycle nerds who enjoyed cafe racer culture and custom bikes very quickly grew into a global campaign to raise awareness and money for prostate cancer research. Mark is now the Director of Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride. The first year, in 2012, about 2500 riders across 64 cities in 20 countries donned a vintage outfit, mounted their vintage crotch rocket and took to the streets, all in the name of breaking some stereotypes and having fun.
Not one to settle, Hawwa decided that the following year, it was going to be more than just a bunch of dapper dudes on Ducatis.
“In the second year we decided that this could be so much more. We partnered up with multiple prostate cancer foundations globally, and started raising funds for, back then, specifically prostate cancer. In the first year of running it as a charitable event, we ended up raising AUD $277 000. We had 10 000 participants across 145 cities, and so it just continued to grow and grow to the point where this year, we’ll have 600 rides across 95 countries, probably about 70 000 participants, all on the same day.”
That day is September 24th, and when those 70 000 odd riders hit the streets, Mark and his team are looking at drawing in USD $5 million. This year sees the alarming rate of depression and suicide amongst men join prostate cancer research and awareness as a charitable cause – something too many men don’t talk about, and something which the Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride has been inadvertently helping prevent since its inception.
“A fundamental problem that we’ve got is we all get into our thirties and people start to settle down and have families, and you start to lose your circle of friends. What we’ve found through working with men’s health organisations, specifically Movember, is that’s when the depression starts kicking in, that’s when people feel that they don’t have someone that they can talk to.
“Without knowing this, back when we first started, what happened was we were bringing people together, and so you’ve got all these different groups worldwide now that have formed because we were able to bring people together that had a similar passion. And from that one day ride, once a year, these guys were able to turn around and create their own motorcycle groups, and their own communities, and that resulted in the family that a lot of these people needed to actually be able to talk to somebody if they were in need.
“It’s pretty amazing when I go travelling , because I travel a fair bit with this, to be able to have those people come up to me and specifically thank me, because if it wasn’t for what we achieved with Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride they don’t feel they would still be alive. And that’s through the fact that we’ve been able to motivate them to get checked for prostate cancer and they’ve been found to have prostate cancer, or the other side of the coin, which is the suicide aspect of this, and being able to just have that network they could talk to.”
While the ride has grown exponentially, Mark and his team have had to remain focussed on the original vision and concept, so as to maintain a sense of order and keep things manageable.
“Style-wise, it’s completely restricted to classic-styled motorcycles. For us, a big part of the event when I was first founded it was about bringing together that community. The event continued to grow, we didn’t change the styles, we really kept it as a classic-styled motorcycling event, and for us, that means that the motorcycles have to be classically styled, and a big part of that was also we are aiming to restrict the size of the events.
“We don’t have any fun in congesting traffic on busy streets – most of our rides have got a maximum limit of about 1,000 people. The Sydney ride is limited at 750, and we work really closely with lots of different councils and police globally to obviously ensure it’s a safe ride.
“We do get negative feedback, I guess, in that regard, because obviously people are very passionate, and people have a fear of missing out, and they feel that it should be open to all styles of motorcycles. But unfortunately, you just can’t have 5,000 motorcycles riding down the same street without expecting there to be any accidents or issues. For us, it’s about limiting the size of the event and just making sure that we’re creating as much awareness, we’re breaking those stereotypes, and we’re raising a lot of funds for the cause.”
The Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride has attracted some big names in its 5 years of operation, with Jai Courtney, Eric Christian Olsen, Ronan Keating, RedFoo and Charley Boorman all notable riders, as well as Henrique Fogaca (I’d never heard of him either, but he’s HUGE in Brazil thanks to their incarnation of Masterchef).
Celebrities aren’t the only big names attracted to Hawwa’s cause – brands have jumped on board to offer prizes for he (or she) who raises the most money, and in no small way. Swiss watch juggernaut Zenith have made 5 timepieces just for this year’s event, these wristwatches will be some of the rarest they’ve ever made. Triumph motorcycles are offering motorbikes too – in fact, the entire prize pool looks to be valued at well over AUD $100 000.
Mark is adamant that his cause is just as reliant on support from people who don’t have a vintage bike and a three-piece suit, and getting involved is about as easy as it gets.
“(Apart from the obvious – jumping on the website and donating) it’s either spreading the word to people that you know that do ride that style of motorcycle, sharing our content for us – the awareness is just as important sometimes as the actual funds that we raise – by sharing the content. Even just having a conversation with your dad, or your brother, or your uncle that may be over 40, and asking them if they’ve had a check. Or just being there for a friend if you feel that something is not mentally right.
“If you do want to ride, you can always hire a motorcycle, borrow a motorcycle off a friend, or you can just come out to one of the starting points and just have a bit of a viewing.”
Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best, and Mark Hawwa’s is one such example. What started as a way to get blokes with bikes bonding is now one of the very few charitable movements that operates globally to serve the needs of men’s health awareness exclusively, and is an incredibly important front line in the battle to help guys talk about mental health, or get a prostate check.
If you have a vintage steed of steel then get in quick and register to ride. If you don’t then head to the website and do your part to share, spread the message or donate – this is a movement that’s gone from strength to strength thanks to passionate supporters, and there’s never been a better time to get on yer bike, for all the right reasons.