Am I a Real Biker? Are You? Does it Matter?

I’ve seen so many Facebook threads, internet memes, and satirical Youtube videos lately focused on one question: What makes someone a Real Biker­™?

Why does it matter, because it apparently matters a lot? Let’s unpack this idea in a few stages.

Why does anyone care what a real biker is?

Firstly, it’s nearly universal that when people attempt to define what “A Real XXX” is, there is high perceived value in being A Real XXX. Real social status, deserved fear, privileged access to resources, or unassailable authority is attributed to members of that in-group. There are no arguments about who is “A real serial killer” because it’s not considered desirable to be in that group and it confers no advantages. A “real biker” has an opinion that matters more than a fake biker, is assumed to have more and better stories and more and “more real” experience than the RUBs. Real Bikers are true and Original, possessed of motives as pure as the driven snow, modern day cowboys or desperados. Modern day Pirates, banditos and gangsters on two wheels. Guys want to be them and women want to be with them, and even when the cops are busting them they are thinking: god dammit they sure are cool though.

Side note on RUBs: if doctors, lawyers, and investment bankers hadn’t bought a lot of Harley’s in the ’90s would American motorcycling have been decimated? Should we thank the RUBs for their investment dollars but not let them play in our reindeer games?

In any community where you can be considered either a piece of shit or a god and everything in between, there’s a notion of “paying your dues”. Did you grind for years on the stand-up comedy circuit or play every shithole bar and birthday party with your band? Did you work as a waiter and do unspeakable things to gain your first big acting break? Congratulations, you’ve Paid Your Dues. Paying Your Dues is a common value in Honor Cultures. Another common requirement is a Rite of Passage or Initiation. Boot camp is a rite of passage any US Marine has in common with every other Marine. The “Rush” in fraternities. Residency for doctors. The bar exam for lawyers. These shared experiences knit a group together: it’s completely reasonable for a group to be suspicious of those who did not pay their dues and go through the initiation rites. The rich would-be politician who uses wealth and celebrity to instantly “make it” is reviled by all the others who worked their way up from Town Alderman to State Senator to US Congress.

Those who view themselves to be in a good place and they got there the “right” way will naturally revile those who took a different path.

Secondly, the inverse of the “Really belonging” idea is the notion of being a tourist, a fake, a poser. These are clearly undesirable labels.

What’s a tourist? Well, the dictionary says “A person traveling, especially for pleasure.” That’s fine, but I prefer my friend Chris A’s definition, a definition with a lot more negative connotation: “A person who travels to observe a radically different way of life, but they see it as one would see an animal in a zoo and don’t allow themselves to be changed by it.” A great example of this is a huge influx of people visiting Woodstock, Alabama after the hit podcast S-Town. People showed up to (Steve Irwin voice) See the wild US Redneck in his native habitat. No one wants to hang out with someone who’s going to go back to work Monday and say “Oh man, you would not believe what these bikers actually say!”

Fake should be self explanatory.

What about a poser? Well when I was a kid this meant people who wore Vans and carried around a skateboard but basically couldn’t skate. It implies that the thing that makes you a part of the community is hard or dangerous but you want that social status without putting in the work, so you pretend.

Side note on posers: a lot of people hate on those who trailer their bikes, especially to big events like Sturgis. While I’m generally not a big fan of “purity tests”, I tend to agree that if the baseline assumption is that you rode there, you’re riding on stolen valor if you rolled your bike off a truck 10 miles out. This is not meant to disrespect folks who can’t do that for health reasons.

Side note on danger & difficulty: I will wave to any biker on the road, but I am torn about things like Can-Am riders. Traveling balanced on two-wheels is just harder and more dangerous and it seems like that’s table-stakes in our community; when I see an old-timer on a trike I wave my respect, assuming he’s one knee-replacement too far to trust his balance anymore but still wants the wind in his face, but a lot of people I suspect should just buy convertibles instead. That’s my bias, peace.

In any culture where there’s any kind of purity test or acceptance test, you will face arguments and standards that evolve over time. This results in a no true Scotsman kind of attitude, where the criteria for being a “real biker” evolve over time to be more exclusive as more people fit the old criteria. I am told, by someone who would know, that in the ’70s you were either in a club or you were a fake. I’ll bet there are a lot of independants out there today that would pass absolutely anyone’s smell test for being a real biker.

The entire first season of the country music podcast, Cocaine and Rhinestones, has many examples of this kind of thinking. Throughout the 19th century the definition of “real country music” was always basically one generation behind what was going on in the country music scene. The lesson is one of dictionary conservatism: if you are not exactly like the status quo, you are fake.

So then, what is a real biker?

For some background I think it’s good to go all the way back to Hunter S. Thompson’s 1967 book on the hell’s angels. There may be more and better sources, but this is a pretty good one. A lot of what’s taken for granted in biker culture today comes out of this place and time, and I do not mean any special favor to the Hell’s Angels here as a modern club. People do things because they’ve seen others doing them, and have no idea why.

Wearing leather. Wearing a German Iron Cross. Being tough. Patches. Choppers. Racing. Being outside of society, misunderstood by the law. Being A Proud Outlaw. Codes of respect. So much of what we know as biker culture has its beginnings with men who came back from World War II and Vietnam. They found that the country they loved and fought for did not offer them the same opportunities for close brotherhood that the military had (see the links on honor culture above). The safe streets of America seemed boring to their heightened tolerance for danger. They brought together the danger, exclusivity, initiation rituals, ranks and titles, logos, and much more from their former military lives and created motorcycle clubs. These men were rebels. So bikers were originally:

  • Blue collar
  • Believed in some kind of Honor Culture, has a code of mutual respect
  • Tough, manly men
  • Outlaws and rebels
  • Misunderstood Outsiders
  • Risk takers, thrill seekers
  • Rode motorcycles everywhere
  • Wrenched on their own bikes

I am the first person in my entire extended family tree to go to college, so I’ll never be a  Real Biker. No woman can ever be a Real Biker. No weekend warrior who doesn’t ride his bobber to a factory job every day can ever be a Real Biker. No one who voted Democrat, or is gay, wears safety gear, or has a white collar job can ever be a Real Biker. So on, and so forth.

except

Except that, as Cocaine and Rhinestones illustrates better than I ever could, the distance between the “Real OG Old-skoolers who truly get it” and the “Upstart pretenders who are ruining everything”, in any human subculture, is always nearly exactly one half of a human generation. Country music? Check. Hip-hop? Check. Muscle cars? Check.
Guns? Politics? Sex? Bikes? Check, check, check, check. Everyone is watching the next generation destroy their pure faith and their perfect culture. If I had studied Latin in college I could bust out something profound sounding like a priori ergo melior. Before is better.
Every American generation is more or less convinced they’ve got it all figured out, while they watch their kids and grandkids send the world directly to hell in the most efficient manner possible. Motorcycling is no different.

Can ladies be badass bikers? That seems clear to me. Can even rich Hollywood types be bikers when they slept by their steeds in the wilderness for over a year? Seems reasonable. Can a lawyer be a biker when he’s got half a dozen Iron Butt Extreme rides under his belt? Why not? No matter what the price of belonging is, some will still find reason to shun the newcomers.

Obviously it’s not up to me to say who is and isn’t a “real biker”. I’m not one, and no amount of three-thousand mile trips and rugged two-wheeled camping will make me one. I can claim that it’s a continuum: be more biker-y and not less biker-y.  We used to be a nation of individuals. Don’t let a Facebook thread or a motorcycle commercial tell you what you are. A motorcycle dealership can’t make you a rebel. Wearing the same thing as everyone else doesn’t make you an individual. Get out, ride, camp with nothing more than you can carry, ride through the rain and cold, stop and help someone on two wheels stuck on the side of the road, stop at a dive bar you’ve never been in before, show respect, be real, be judged by your actions.

The world could use more bikers.