Biker, Rider or Just Plain Nuts?

(Authors Note: This article is reposted From my writings for VirginiaWind for which I wrote a monthly article for around 2 years).

Each month as it nears the drop dead date for submitting my next article I feel a bit of a panic if I haven’t found something to write about, yet invariably something happens that provides that flash of inspiration and gets my creative juices flowing.

This month it was something that one of the members of my BMW Black Sheep MC group wrote about concerning the long history of the seafaring male members of his “tribe” and how it compared to his own love of motorcycling. In it he likened his love of motoring, the freedom of being able to roam where one may, explore the back “coves” and byways both on and off road, to that of his seafaring ancestry and their adventures on the high seas. The thrill of discovering new ports of call, the loneliness of the open sea, especially for the ones that sailed in small boats alone or with only a phantom crew. The challenge of packing all necessary gear in a rather limited space to deal with any emergency that could reasonably be expected to occur, or deciding to “risk it all” and take minimal equipment and simply live by wits alone with a devil-may-care attitude and hope for the best. He contemplated the similarity of the whole mystique of the wanderlust attributed to the seafaring crowd with his own wanderlust. The enjoyment he felt in just heading out for a week, a weekend or even a quick overnight or day ride into the hills and mountains, to explore the back “waters” of the surrounding country side with no particular destination.

In his writing he also touched on the fact that he views himself not as a “Biker” but rather as a “Rider”, because, as he put it “that’s what I do, Ride”. That got me to thinking about how each of us view ourselves, our own involvement in the whole motorcycling sub-culture, how others who don’t ride view us and how all this came about.

I assume there were sailors that reveled in the commonly held public view of seaman in those early times of the sailing vessels. Sailors who thoroughly enjoyed being viewed as a dangerous, unruly, carefree, and fearless lot. If the tales of the olden days are to be believed, they not only took advantage of the situation but in every likelihood took some measure to ensure that the view was maintained and lived the life attributed to them. Yet, how correct was this generalized public view of seaman? Were they all in fact, as is so often portrayed in movies, men of no good intent, who spent their day on board ship swinging bare-chested among the sails and yardarms, knives clenched menacingly between their teeth? Men who spent their time waiting for the next ship to appear for them to plunder and pillage, or perhaps the next land fall to rape and ravage every damsel in sight; or simply to take their sport with the luckless few who were unwittingly out and about while the majority of the locals cowered in the back alleys and hid their young daughters from view? To my mind it seems that was this for the most part the result of an overly imaginative public with a need to slander what they so little understood.

Most probably the majority of seamen would have preferred the public to view them as they truly were. They were seamen simply because they loved the sea, the adventure, the challenge, the feel of the wind in their face and the sounds and smells that were born upon the waves, the freedom of the open sea, and all it represented. They simply had to accept the fact that the public held certain misconceptions about their lives as seaman which they could do little about other than lead their lives and conduct their affairs in a manner not unlike the vast majority of the populace.

While this is all speculation on my part, as regards the seaman’s life 150 or more years ago, it is meant simply as a lead-in to this months theme; that in many ways the motorcycling community is subject to much the same stigma. It is, like my analogy of the seafarer of days gone by, the result of a long held misconception based on the actions of a few. A quick review of a variety of sources seems to lead to a commonly held opinion this all started with media reports of the 1947 take over of the small town of Hollister, CA by a group of outlaw bikers. Before that, motorcyclists were not much in the public eye. No doubt the general public held the view that anyone willing to risk life and limb speeding about on some two-wheeled contraption completely exposed to the elements, had to be a little off their feed. But then no doubt the public viewed the barnstormers of the 20’s, or any group of individuals involved in such obviously “dangerous” activities, in much the same fashion.
The incident in Hollister may well have just faded out of public awareness had it not been further aggravated by a short story based on the incident and then later the movie “The Wild Ones”, in which, incidentally, Marlon Brando did not ride a Harley, but rather a Triumph. Having now attracted the public eye, outlaw gangs came more and more into public view.

The more the media wrote, the more the public gobbled it all up. Then Hunter S. Thompson came out with his book that is often quoted as the definitive work on the subject of outlaw biker gangs, and people cried “See, I told you so, motorcyclist ARE dangerous, despicable bums!”. They seemed to have missed the point or chose to disregard the fact that it was specifically about a small minority of bikers. Meanwhile, the outlaw biker gangs cried “foul!”, yet they continued to grow and did little or nothing to change the image thus portrayed, all the while riding the wave of notoriety that the media created for them. So the media slapped the label “Biker”, with a capitol “B” on the motorcycling community and it came to be all encompassing, and it stuck hard and fast, just like the little price tags on cellophane wrapped boxes. And just like those little price stickers, you can pick at the corners, with a lot of effort maybe remove it in bits and pieces and if you’re really lucky maybe remove the first layer or so, but there’s always still more that refuses to come off. Once that label has been applied, it’s there for the long run, and so too has the term Biker stuck fast over the years. But were the hard-core outlaw gangs, even then, representative of the vast majority? Hardly. But society loves labels, it makes it easy to categorize groups, the larger and less distinct the better, and it (society) just doesn’t have time for all the nuances of subcategories and the Media is always happy to oblige. It makes selling the news that much easier when they don’t have to worry about explaining all the sub-cultures to a readership hungry for more dirt.

Then the sixties came along with all its new problems and concerns, the public focused instead on the emerging rag-tag hippie culture with its “threats” of overturning the whole of American society. Added to that, the people started to question the validity of the Vietnam War, the Cold War became an ever increasing concern, the possibility of a nuclear war and ensuing nuclear winter continued to raise their menacing heads, and America, fueled by the media, was off and running in new direction. But that was OK, the media had run out of ways to twist and rehash the evils attributed to the motorcycling community at large and the public had gorged itself and demanded new offerings to fill the vast bowl of public outrage. So the media turned its attention to the onslaught of new concerns and the Biker issue was left behind for the FBI and local law enforcement to deal with, and the Bikers went back to California and America went fishing for Hippies and Communists.

It has been reported by many in the media who follow the motorcycle phenomena that when Honda came out with its “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” campaign, the view of the public changed toward motorcycling. But did it indeed change? Certainly it changed the public view of those that rode the new wave of Japanese small displacement motor bikes, the Honda CB line of 250’s and 305 Dreams, the Italian Vespa scooters, and so forth, but that hardly comprised the entire motorcycle riding populace. The big displacement American machines were still out there, and there were new machines being introduced from Europe all the time. BSA and Triumph were added to the list of bikes that were being chopped, extended, raked and chromed. And yet in outward appearance, at least in the public eye, that core group of die-hard motorcyclists remained basically unchanged, the leather and patches were still prevalent, the chrome, the shiny, and sometimes loud, pipes, the jeans and cutoff jackets were all still in evidence. Yet all the while the numbers were growing, the rallies were getting bigger and the machines got more expensive. Then the Look that had started out in small “chop shops” was picked up by industry, and bikes were now coming right from the factory with the Look. And it sold like crazy as Americans’ became more affluent and they could afford the luxury of the more costly “custom” machines, except of course, they weren’t “custom” anymore. Slowly the clientele that rode the big, new, more costly machines changed, more and more they were coming from the ranks of middle-class Americans who lived in suburbia, with families and good jobs, yet the Look remained basically unchanged. Many of them were the same ones that had ridden the Japanese and European bikes of the 60’s, but they were ready for the big boy toys of the new era and they adopted the Look of the 50’s and 60’s custom machines. And again that’s what the public saw, the Look, and they remembered Altamont and all the old stories from the 50’s and 60’s and they locked their car doors when the big boys went riding by. They didn’t know or care that this was a whole new breed of biker, that they (the bikers) were their neighbors and co-workers and came from the same ranks of society as them, they just saw the leather, patches and chrome.

And when I look around today, in many places I still see much the same Look, with one big difference, now it has been commercialized and that makes me wonder if it is no longer really ours. I see it being sold to us in the motorcycle apparel shops. I see it in all the knock offs of the Great American Dream Machine. I see it in the adds for “Biker” magazines that proclaim they’re written for the hard riding, hard drinking, hard partying Bro’s, mixed in with plenty of “Hot Babes” showing their stuff, as though that’s all women are good for. And sadly too I still see bikers, both men and women, who’s actions at various motorcycle events seem to imply they subscribe to the negative hard-core image and thus perpetrate the “Bikers are Bad” debacle that started so many years ago. But I wonder how many of them head home to suburbia after a hard day of keeping the image alive, and I find that disturbing.

So I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised to still see news reports of Bike Week at Daytona that concentrate on the drinking, drugs and scantly clad “Biker Chicks”, while ignoring the rest of the event, and thus reinforce the stereotypical Biker image. All that makes me mad as hell, because I know better. How then do we convince the public of what we within the ranks know? That the Look is just that, and nothing more. That the vast majority of us are not “Bikers” in context of the hard-core outlaw gangs that are hell bent on tearing down everything in sight?

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that we throw away the leather, the club patches, strip the chrome off our bikes or return to the pre-World-War-II days. Nor am I advocating that we should boycott the whole motorcycle manufacturing industry. Motorcycles have been vastly improved over the past decades, the safety, reliability and features offered on the machines of today make riding all the more enjoyable and rewarding. There can be no question that those improvements are beneficial or that they have come about by the very fact that motorcycle manufacturing has become a large scale industry; but that does not mean we have to let that industry take from us that which is ours, and ours alone, the right to define our own image. There is no doubt we’ve come a long way since the 50’s and 60’s, we’re more involved within our communities and have made many positive contributions in so doing. We take an active part in defining the role of our government, give to those in need and take actions to ensure our right to ride is not infringed upon by those who’s minds are shut to the truth about us.

What I am suggesting is that we have lost a part of what made us unique by the commercialization of those aspects that define us and make us different. Because we are different, and we should revel in that difference. We can’t afford the luxury of becoming complacent, or forgetting that in the end it is us who must define who we are, where we’re going and how we are perceived by the public at large. We need to continue to be constantly on guard, ever aware, speak out against those that would undo the progress we’ve made and let the industry know who’s boss.

Will the general public ever really fully accept the fact that the vast majority of us don’t subscribe to all the industry and media hype, we’re not now, and never were, a bunch of bad-ass bikers out to wreck their town? Sadly, as long as the stigma of the term Biker is associated with the concept of the outlaw biker gangs, I suspect not. Society is, and always has been, quick to accuse, slow to forgive, and long to remember. Especially when the common memory is occasionally stirred by media reports that keep the old images alive. If I seem a bit cynical it’s only because history has shown that complacency is the first step toward conformity and we would then lose what is most precious to us, our freedom to ride and to define who we are.

Just out of curiosity I looked up the term “biker” in Webster’s and this is what I found:

Word: biker
Function: noun

Date: 1883
2 : MOTORCYCLIST; especially: one who is a member of an organized gang

I find the reference to “especially” and “organized gang”, not ” organized group” or “organized club”, particularly troubling.

When I was discussing this issue with my SO, who also rides, she mentioned an article she had just read about a group of women motorcyclists and she found it interesting that all the women referred to themselves as “Riders” regardless of the type of machine they rode. More and more I see the term being used within the MC community, so obviously we are becoming more and more sensitive to the continued misinterpretation of the term Biker.

So maybe it’s time to leave the term behind us, or at least continue to redefine it. We need to ensure that each time we ride, the image we project is in indeed the image we intend. And hopefully, in continuing to be ever vigilant and aware, to object loudly when the media portrays us as something other than what we truly are, we will in the end be free of the stigma of the term “Biker” with a capitol “B” and we will regain our freedom to define ourselves once more. That is what my friend meant when he said “I’m a Rider”. I too, am a “Rider” for much the same reasons, but I’m also a biker, and yes, I’m probably a bit nuts as well.