The motorcycles have returned to the highways and cut through the bug free air of spring stopping only, or, occasionally, for red lights next to poor fellows behind the wheels of mini vans loaded with progeny and pets. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his 19th Century treatise, Compensation, “For anything you gain, you lose something.”
The quote is appropriate to life experiences including motorcycling (Robert Pirsig’s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance incorrectly attributed a paraphrase of Emerson’s quote to Thoreau which really wouldn’t matter a bit if Pirsig’s book had anything to do with Zen or motorcycle maintenance). To ‘gain’ the experience of riding through the countryside as opposed to experiencing it through the windows of a car is an aesthetic gain while protection from the elements is an acceptable loss for many bikers.
While much of the U.S. citizenry is undergoing some new age psychotherapy, transactional analysis, plugging their round pegs into square holed archetypes, and walking around muttering to themselves through the tongues and minds of politics, economics, and religion in efforts to conquer that universal foe – fear – as if talking it out of existence makes it go away, the motorcyclists know they rarely get a second chance at decisions made on the highway. They ride and live accordingly, or, they don’t live very long.
Failure, or, rather, the fear of failure, is something motorcyclists overcome. Failure is not a part of the plan like some cheesy pre-nuptials preceding a two-year date-marriage to underwrite, well, failure, when the sex chills and the chardonnay warms. Skydivers, pilots, scuba divers, the flying trapeze people, surfers, and so forth, also share that position which is viewed by others as taking unnecessary risks and, yes, for those who surrender to their fears comes at the price of some rewarding experiences. It is socially correct these days to be without balls and with fear of leaving home without a cell phone just in case something happens at the expense, or loss, of personal privacy and self reliance.
The motorcycle experience encompasses far more than the overcoming of fear; there’s the more practical aspects of learning and knowing how to service and repair the machine. Most male bikers – there is a growing contingent of ladies astride – would agree anyone can use their toothbrush, sleep with their old lady, but don’t touch the bike. Bike riders have a passion in knowing through their empirical, mechanical experience that every nut and bolt is secured on the machine with the correct torque. It won’t be the dealership bike mechanic whose butt is on the line should mechanical failure occur at 60 miles per hour.
It is noteworthy to mention the biker’s penchant for safety and preventive maintenance does carry over to when they do wrap themselves within the four wheeled, two thousand pound suppositories; they are better car drivers. This is something the underwriters have understood for some time until the first-time biker owner – demographically over 50 years of age, riding a Harley-Davidson, and a danger to themselves – began to emerge from the recently divorced, baby-boomer pack. Combined with the distinct sound of a v-twin engine designed to fire out of sync thus giving it that loud snap-crackle-pop sound, the Harley’s ridden by the old guys often carry a 200-pound load on the back of the bike taking the form of hard case bags or a ‘lady’ in need of Jenny Craig, or a two year tour of Somalia, successfully combining noise and visual pollution.
Usually, these two-wheeled threats to traffic flow only own the bikes for a couple of years for fair weather poker runs before trading them in for a golf cart and flooding the motorcycle market with barely used motorcycles. The time they do have on the bikes fulfills something they missed when mommy said ‘no’ to motorcycles, football, and pointed scissors.
The more familiar image of the biker is associated with the bike gangs mainly located in California which Hunter Thompson, Hollywood, and local law enforcement successfully stigmatized bikers who ride in groups of three or more. In his 1965 article printed in The Nation, Thompson opens his story:
Last Labor Day weekend newspapers all over California gave front-page reports of a heinous gang rape in the moonlit sand dunes near the town of Seaside on the Monterey Peninsula. Two girls, aged 14 and 15, were allegedly taken from their dates by a gang of filthy, frenzied, boozed-up motorcycle hoodlums called "Hell's Angels," and dragged off to be "repeatedly assaulted."
A deputy sheriff, summoned by one of the erstwhile dates, said he "arrived at the beach and saw a huge bonfire surrounded by cyclists of both sexes. Then the two sobbing, near-hysterical girls staggered out of the darkness, begging for help. One was completely nude and the other had on only a torn sweater."
Some 300 Hell's Angels were gathered in the Seaside-Monterey area at the time, having convened, they said, for the purpose of raising funds among themselves to send the body of a former member, killed in an accident, back to his mother in North Carolina.
One of the Angels, hip enough to falsely identify himself as "Frenchy of San Bernardino," told a reporter who came out to meet the cyclists: "We chose Monterey because we get treated good here; most other places we get thrown out of town."
In the 1953 film, The Wild One, Marlon Brando played a bike gang member who rode his (Brando's) own personal Triumph bike and more than a decade later, Steve McQueen rode a Triumph in his famous riding scene in The Great Escape. Still later, in the cult classic, Easy Rider, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper took their fateful ride on chopped Harley’s after consummating a drug deal.
Whether in real life or on the screen, bikers do enjoy the rebellious bad boy (or, girl) label whether accurate or not when the bike is in the garage. This seems to be a phenomenon specific to western culture since more motorcycles are used for daily transportation (ok, socio-economic pressures being different) in the Far East.
While the early Café racers coming out of the UK in the late 1950’s through the 1960’s (Norton, BSA, and Triumph) set the pace for high performance bikes, it was Japan which produced what could easily be described the best designed motorcycle ever made; the Honda CB 750. The bike had everything including reliability and acceptability outside the ‘bike gang’ stigma. As the motorcycles changed, so did the market and the ‘type’ of riders. When Honda introduced the grand touring motorcycle, the Gold Wing, a new type of motorcycle club emerged specific to bike brand which had a membership of all ages.
In contrast to Hunter Thompson’s report, and his book, Hell’s Angels, the motorcycle evolved into an attractive, sexy vehicle much as the ragtop autos of the past. Women, both as riders and passengers, boosted a new market in leather wear which ranged from basic chaps through the tight, low-rise jeans, to the 13” mini-skirt topped with a leather halter. Other spin-off’s included a resurgence, and, again, acceptability, of the visible (as well as concealed) tattoo and body piercing. To be fashionably rebellious no longer requires the actual motorcycle, just some of the regalia.
That’s what the market economy does best; it exploits what is on society’s fringes into a mass appeal product much as it did with rhythm and blues/rock n’ roll music and plugs it into every possible human activity. There are ‘parade bikes,’ trail bikes, touring bikes, high performance crotch rockets, metropolitan scooters, as well as collectors of classic Indian’s, Harley’s, and Enfield’s of eras long past. The bikes are used for commuting, long distance traveling, recreation, or just a thing to do on the weekend after a long work week.
Regardless of type or purpose, anyone with a motorcycle endorsement on their state operators license can, at any given moment, become a little rebellious if only briefly.
Today, the bike has become a practical alternative to the automobile in response to gasoline prices hovering around the $3 per gallon mark for ‘regular.’ There are quite a few ‘suits’ riding bikes during early morning commutes and the benefits extend beyond gas prices; parking in many cities is an additional expense plus the annual insurance on a bike – depending on engine displacement and overall value – is usually less than $200 per year. Add a helmet, a rain suit, a saddlebag for the laptop, the commuter is still ahead of the expense game plus arriving at work a little more emotionally charged.
While the bike has undergone considerable design changes geared towards safety, performance, and reliability, the experience of motorcycling will essentially remain the same as long as there are winding roads away from the interstate highways. The destination, to a biker, is secondary to the ride and that may be the last aspect which separates the biker from non-bikers. It is, after all, the non-bikers who ‘truck’ their rides between Daytona and Sturgis to participate in middle-aged spring/summer breaks heavily tinged with melancholic sighs of lost youth and the eventual return to the mediocre lives on either side of the double yellow lines never changing between nine and five.
There is a Zen aspect to reconsider as well.
If Emerson was correct, then it does become a relevant question in the context of personal freedom, use and appreciation of natural resources, and, yes, an aesthetic experience which can be a positive reckoning with the more mundane chores; what is one willing to relinquish to gain such an experience?
Bikers have their own unique answers to that question and negotiate their fears accordingly in a society which trusts others to guarantee the illusion of risk-free lives with the predictable consistently of oatmeal. When that illusion fails to deliver what’s promised, some just buy a bike while others undergo therapy.
Both usually end up on the highway stopped at the same traffic light.