Suit up, rev your engine, and speak out
22 June 2020 at 8:11 am
Motorbikes and men’s health might be an unlikely pair. But Mark Hawwa is on a mission to change this through The Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride, a quirky annual event that is breaking down stereotypes and saving men’s lives. He’s this week’s Changemaker.
Each year, 120,000 motorbike riders in more than 650 cities worldwide gather in their finest suits astride their classic and vintage styled bikes.
Hawwa, an avid motorcycle enthusiast, started the quirky event back in 2012 as a fun way of dismantling the idea that all motorcyclists were tough and scary.
But this is more than just a fun day out for motorbike lovers to show off their bikes. It’s about getting men together to talk about physical and mental health problems that too often go unspoken about until it’s too late.
Global men’s health charity Movember has also recently partnered with the Ride, committing $1.5 million towards the newly launched Ride Social Connections Challenge, aiming to improve the social connectedness, life satisfaction and mental wellbeing of the community.
In this week’s Changemaker, Hawwa talks about where the idea came from, how the idea has evolved, and why perseverance is key.
How did you come up with the idea back in 2012?
I actually saw a picture of Don Draper from Mad Men, the TV show, and he was on the front cover of GQ magazine and was dressed up in a suit, looking super smooth, next to a classic motorcycle. I thought, hey, I’ve got a classic motorcycle and I look good in a suit. But more so, it was about breaking down the stereotype that motorcyclists are bad people.
There was a lot of negative coverage at the time around motorcycle gangs and many people had this fear that every person riding a motorbike was a bad person. I knew that wasn’t true though because the people I ride with are healthcare professionals, CEOs, [and] people that cover all aspects of life.
Within probably about a week of creating a logo and putting it on social media, I had 64 friends from around the world who are also motorcyclists turn around and say, “yep, we’re in”. The first year we had 64 rides, and 2,500 riders.
How did it then develop into a ride that also promoted men’s physical and mental health?
We had a couple of friends that were working at the Prostate Cancer Foundation in Australia. And they actually came to us and said, “Hey, we’ve got this issue where we can’t get guys to get tested for prostate cancer because they still think that the testing method is a physical test, when it’s actually a blood test”. So we took on the challenge of trying to break that macho mentality within the motorcycle community, trying to get men to speak a little bit more about their health, and motivate as many men to get tested as possible.
So in 2013, the ride had grown to around four times the size and our whole goal was just trying to get men over 40 tested. We also ended up raising $275,000 for prostate cancer research.
We then lost one of our ride hosts. He took his own life about four weeks after a ride and that’s when we came together and decided to focus on mental health as well, because we do know that men don’t like to talk about their health, and we do know that there’s a certain fear of being vulnerable. I got a little bit nervous when we shifted our focus to mental health because up until that point it had been really successful and I didn’t know how people were going to react. But pretty quickly it became evident that for a lot of people, the mental health piece was one of the more important aspects of why they’d become a part of the ride.
What are some of the main achievements you’ve seen since starting the project?
The biggest achievement for me personally is the fact that we were able to one, start to break down a stigma [about] motorcyclists, but two, get these men in a position where it’s okay to feel vulnerable and it’s okay to talk about their health.
I get to see that firsthand, I get to see the conversations that these guys are having with each other. Being able to create a network globally has been such a helpful thing for the people that are taking part in these events. A big part of what I didn’t actually realise when creating [The Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride] was that this event is a one-day event held all around the world on the exact same day, but as a result of that and of bringing people together, these people have started creating their own groups within each of their cities. So you’ve now got literally hundreds of motorcycle groups that have been formed by people that have met at this event. And the great thing about it is they’ve met through an event based around men’s health. So already they are more prone to be able to talk about their health and more active about having those conversations and having those harder conversations with each other. That’s been a lifesaver for a lot of people. And we know it’s a lifesaver for a lot of people because we tend to get about 150 emails from people saying if it wasn’t for us, they wouldn’t be here.
The ride now takes place in 104 countries, how have you managed that growth?
From day one, we had guidelines that we set up because for me it was always about making sure that we were spreading the right message. To be able to do that I knew straight away that we had to have a minimum criteria as to how to put together an event and how to run it safely. And those guidelines just kept on continuing to grow.
We’ve actually been able to build out an entire website where we can get the guys that are willing to host these events into a tutorial. We’ve got guidelines about risk assessments, and insurance coverage. It’s all part of a system that gives them the tools that they need to create a safe event. We’ve got a team of four people here in Sydney and we’ve got two helping hands in the UK and between the six of us, we work with pretty much every ride host to make sure that they’re creating a special event that is actually a benefit to men’s health globally.
What advice would you give to someone like yourself in 2012?
The hardest part with what I did was that there was nothing else like it globally. I wasn’t able to actually just have a look and do some research at different events and go “Okay, here’s how I can do it,” because it was completely different. For me, the advice is always to understand that there are going to be times when you think it’s a dead end, but you need to keep on persevering because it’s not a dead end, it’s just a hurdle. And unfortunately, some of these hurdles are just a hell of a lot taller than other hurdles. But there’s always a way to get over it.
What do you love most about running The Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride?
It’s the fact that we’re actually making a huge change to the motorcycling scene and making a huge change to the men in the motorcycling scene. In the last week, we’ve announced that we’ve got a $1.15 million package to be split across 22 different ideas trying to uncover the best way to get men to connect with each other.
That’s a huge thing for me, because I’ve been doing this for eight or nine years and now we’re finally at the stage where we can start to put some of the actual funds that we’ve raised for these charities to focus on things that are really close to home, but also things that will help men globally, regardless of whether or not they’re a motorcycle rider.
It’s also about getting those emails, getting those text messages, and phone calls saying, “Hey, if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here”. That makes it a lot easier during a very stressful job when you’ve got something as rewarding as being told that you’ve saved someone’s life.
This story was updated on 22 June 2020, correcting the “$1.5 million package” to the actual figure of $1.15 million.