My friend Spaz, formerly known as Corvus to some, is now blogging/vlogging at Spaz on Wheels. This guy rides a lot, does a lot of bike customization, and should have a lot of interesting stuff to say. He’s got a Harley Ultra Limited and an Indian Chieftain Dark Horse, both heavily customized. Go check him out.
Here I am at the 5th Annual Brewtown Rumble on June 2nd, 2019. What’s the Brewtown Rumble, you ask?
The Brewtown Rumble is a ride-in vintage motorcycle show. It doesn’t matter the make, model or condition of the bike. It just matters that you ride it! Everyone is welcome – riders and motorcycle enthusiasts alike.
The Rumble also features live music, a pin-up show, vendors and food from some of Milwaukee’s best cafes, restaurants and food trucks.
Proceeds from the Rumble support the BUILD Moto Mentor Program. Come see the BUILD bikes in person, and see which team wins the BUILD Cup.
The sun is shining, ABATE of Wisconsin has a booth, there’s bikes, beer, food, and music. This is my third time attending the Rumble, and I have to admit I was a bit concerned by the bikes this year. Between years of Momma Tried and the Brewtown Rumble, I’ve already got pics of a lot of the bikes within riding/trailering distance of these Milwaukee events. I tried to take pictures of bikes that I haven’t shown before, but I make no promises.
As I mentioned, my main reason for being here was to help set up and work the ABATE of Wisconsin booth.
We had a lot of traffic and conversation, but something was missing. The same thing that’s always missing: people under 50 signing up to be members. I continue to marvel about the degree to which everyone involved in motorcycling at all is now grappling with the question of how to create the next generation of riders. More on that in a minute, first I had to stop next door and say hi to my Indian Motorcycle friends.
Does Royal Enfield Get it and No One else Does?
Across the street was the Royal Enfield lot. The got themselves a lot of space this year and I had to go check it out.
I do not get Royal Enfield. They are 1-cylinder bikes that ride funky to me. Who’s their target demographic? Are these retro bikes? Hipster commuter bikes? Bikes for dedicated Anglophiles who can’t get behind Triumph? I walked over and talked to a young lady who turned out to be involved with brand management and marketing for Royal Enfield’s North American headquarters. Within moments it became clear that she could teach things to me and perhaps others in the ABATE of Wisconsin crew.
Since she’s awesome and willing to talk to us, I’m going out of my way not to out her. The bottom line is that Royal Enfield is killing it, growing sales year over year at a time when most brands are struggling to slow down the decline. What have they figured out?
Royal Enfield has a story to tell that’s different from Harley or Indian. I don’t want to fuck up paraphrasing it here, so I’ll save my interpretation of their story for another time after I’ve been able to do more research.
I asked my guide if there were… certain stereotypes that I could guess about RE buyers. Did they also have man-buns, anachronistic curly mustaches, and perhaps have an affinity for mechanical typewriters, Polaroid cameras, and bizarre IPAs? She cut me off “Yes, it’s OK to say it: hipster boys buy these bikes”. These are 1 cylinder bikes with plenty of space around the main components: you can learn to work on these bikes easily. Royal Enfield has “shop days” in dealerships where interested folks can show up on weekend mornings and learn how to wrench on their bikes from certified mechanics: more on this later.
Royal Enfields are also inexpensive: my guide claimed that every single RE bike was under $7,000 and here’s an additional kicker: she claimed the bikes are nearly always naked on the showroom floor. There is no bait-n-switch or upsell where you fall in love with a bike on the dealer floor only to find that the beauty you’ve been talking yourself into buying is sporting thousands of dollars of extra parts. What you see is what you get and they hand you a catalog to make it your own. My guide quoted figures that are all to familiar: Millenials and Gen Z have student loan debt and credit card debt. They are less likely to own homes and start families than their parents and grandparents; their economic outlook is decidedly pessimistic. Being able to get a new bike with a great warranty for under $7k? Royal Enfield may be exploiting a great market niche.
My guide seemed a little confused: maybe thought I was drunk, hitting on her, angling for a photo, or any of the other bullshit that women have to deal with at trade shows. I explained that I was with ABATE of Wisconsin and that the question of reaching younger riders was something of an existential issue for us. I said I would really appreciate it if she had any advice for us.
ABATE of Wisconsin marketing badass Doris was primarily responsible for our being at The Rumble this day, I went back to her and said “You need to meet this individual.” Doris talked to her and this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship: again, I don’t want to “out” anyone but this was a very productive day and I’m grateful.
When I come to events like this, I’m always energized. I try to figure out how to put into words whatever it is about this motorcycle culture that so captivates us. Those of us who are “into it” often wind up being really into it. It becomes less a thing we do and more who we are. I believe it’s less about the self reliance of wrenching on your own bike, and less about an excuse to drink beer and look at tatooed young people while a loud, obnoxious band plays.
I will talk more about this in the near future, but I believe the Fellowship of Those Who Balance on Two Wheels is simply a strong connection and shared experience, and we have reached a point in American history where those things are rare. No one at work understands why I’d want to ride from Milwaukee to Idaho – at the Brewtown Rumble I can talk to any random person in the crowd and they’ve either done a ride like that, plan to do a ride like that, or wish their knees were healthy enough to do a ride like that. If I talk about wanting to buy an offroad bike so that I can just leave the road, enter a national park, and truly disappear: every single person I talk to at least understands why even if it’s not “for them”.
It’s good to be among one’s people. It’s good to have people, to have a tribe. I used to have trouble making friends, and by most practical definitions I still do. But I do have people. Thanks to technology, I can enter the Internet and come out the other end with a group of fun bikers at a bizarre alien-themed bar in Campbellsport, WI 120 miles from home where the locals at the bar just down the road warned us to only drink from bottles and cans because “Those alien weirdos don’t do their dishes very well”. Me, a guy with all the social skills of a potted plant, could have burgers with Good People™ every single day of the week both during and after riding season. All because there’s something special about this motorcycle culture. Going to an event like the Brewtown Rumble is like a more intense version of “the wave” you get from another biker rolling past you. You are surrounded by your people, and that’s a good thing.
Maybe I’m full of shit. As the creator of This Motorcycle Life points out, there’s a would-be philosopher underneath nearly every motorcycle helmet. Maybe someone else has already said it better.
Of course, it’s a ride-in show and it’s always about the bikes. I don’t think I have taken pics of any of these bikes before, but I also didn’t go back and check.
I had the joy of traveling for work recently: Milwaukee, WI to San Jose, CA. It had been a while, and I forgot how much I hated air travel.
It’s not that flying bothers me: it’s amazing to travel thousands of miles in a few hours. It’s not that packing bothers me: indeed I rather like planning and compressing my needs for a week down into what I can carry. Rather, I hate the ceremony and the complete loss of control that comes with modern air travel.
“The Ceremony” is simple: if you fly in America today you have a taste of what it’s like to live in a police state. You need various identifiers and identification; if your name does not appear exactly on your driver’s license as you booked your flight, you may not get to fly. The US Government can put you on a “no fly list” without telling you, and without giving you any due process of law that would allow you to see why you are on the do-not-fly list, and without a clear legal path to getting off of it. Furthermore, in the United States you will soon need a “Real ID”, much closer to- or equivalent-to a Passport in order to fly.
All this to fly domestically. In the “land of the free”.
So you need “your papers” in order to fly: something the average middle-class traveler in Soviet Russia would certainly understand. But wait, that’s not where your privacy violations end. You are going to get SCANNED.
Consider first the “millimeter wave” scanners deployed at almost every US airport now. Depending on which article you read, this may or may not present TSA officers with a high resolution contour of exactly what you look like naked. The thing that people forget about TSA officers is that they are just like all other officers: they are just people. That means they are no better or worse than the average American. Some of them will be ethical and honest, with their mission in the forefront of their minds as they do their jobs. Others will behave as though they were a 14 year old boy who suddenly had X-ray vision into the girls’ locker room.
The TSA can also simply embarrass you. Suppose you, like my father, have various iron and titanium pins in your legs due to severe injuries from motorcycle accidents. The metal detectors are going to alarm as you walk through. You’re going to have to explain yourself at the very least. Maybe you’ll get “extra screening”.
Finally, the TSA can search your luggage at any time and for any reason. If you have a diver’s computer, a special piece of hardware for work, or maybe a particularly flashy pack of condoms in your luggage: someone with close to zero training is going to be flagged that they should look through your luggage. Did you bring a pair of fuzzy handcuffs on your vacation with your wife, or did you bring something to clean your CPAP, or are you traveling with a few things to spice of the bedroom while you vacation in the Caribbean? The TSA can poke, prod, and confiscate any of that.
Here’s the thing: once you reach a certain age, a doctor is going to poke around your most private parts and ask you uncomfortable questions. This is a part of getting older: we get pap smears, testicular cancer checks, breast cancer scans, prostate checks, and so on. But being a doctor is not easy: when you drop your pants for a doctor you are doing so for someone who has gone through 8-12+ years of school and has seen it all before and has everything to lose from being accused of sticking their finger in the wrong place. A TSA agent is different from a doctor in all the wrong ways.
Once you are physically on your flight, you lose even more freedom. You must obey a US Air Marshal or any random Southwest employee or face felony charges. Sure, nearly every flight goes well, but how do you feel about the idea of being beholden to someone who didn’t like the political message on your jacket? Remember, people are just people…
If, by Odin’s grace, you don’t make your flight, you are likely fucked. Did you get trip insurance, or did you get the kind of tickets that will not be refunded? You see, Americans have decided over the past 25+ years that all they care about is the cost of a flight. It doesn’t matter if they are sitting literally on top of someone who is hand-pumping their colostomy bag out into their neighbor’s coffee, if they can get to Vegas for $50 less they’ll deal with it. They will not remember this experience and vote with their dollars to have a more dignified flight next time. So, you are likely missing a day or more of your vacation if you miss that flight. Does it matter that it’s Spring Break and Airline X didn’t staff their counters enough? Nope, go back home loser.
Maybe you get bumped from an overbooked flight. Maybe you have to hand over a prized pocketknife you had in your jeans out of pure habit. Maybe the counter was too busy and they leave without you…
But the Road Won’t Leave Without You
Now, suppose you are instead packing for a motorcycle trip. Assuming that everything you’re packing is legal, you have nearly zero concern for anyone looking at it. The chances of you getting pulled over and searched are, anyway, incredibly small.
Suppose it’s spring break for some local schools and you start out a little late?
Oh well, you sit in traffic a little bit. You don’t miss your flight, you don’t lose a whole day of your vacation.
Suppose a tornado tears across the road a few miles in front of you? OK, you wait, and you move on when it’s safe.
Suppose the thunderstorm of the century tears across the state you’re riding through and you find yourself stuck in a rest area in Knoxville?
Fine, that’s great. Survive. There is no large insurance company who will not let your bike take off without considering a billion variables: you can leave whenever you feel like you can ride. If you take off and discover that the roads are really terrible, you can pull off on the side of the road and sleep anywhere you’re equipped to sleep. Sure you shouldn’t build campfires on someone’s private property but you can judge for yourself. You are in control. Maybe you do pull off the highway and park your bike in a ditch and throw your bivy over yourself. Rain pours, lightning strikes. Thunder follows. A man who is shurely Clint Eastwood reincarnated rides a horse near the tree you’re camped under and politely but firmly asks what the hell you’re doing on his property. Flustered, you explain how you’re on a motorcycle trip and you pulled over to escape the storm and you meant no disrespect to his property rights…
There was a time when he might have said at best “Why don’t y’all come up to our cabin” and at worst “Y’all take care, feel free to camp on my land, but ride up and tell me if you’re staying past tomorrow.” The way we treat each other today, that’s a topic for another day…
You see, the Road won’t leave without you, and the Earth won’t refuse to let you sleep there. When you are traveling on your own steed, you have so much more freedom. An airplane cannot decide to camp underneath an overpass. An airplane cannot ask the bar owner if you can pitch a tent out back. Your saddlebags know that anything packed in there is not for anyone else to know about. You can pull over to the side of the road and wait out traffic if that’s what makes sense. If not, you roll on by in your rain gear.
If you make a mistake, you leave a little late. If the road is unsafe, you choose another road. You decide how much risk to take, you decide how long the “layover” is. You travel with your rights and dignity intact. You can even carry a bottle of water if that suits you.
The airlines will leave without you, they’ve already got your money and quite frankly you dropping dead in the check in line or not is all the same to them. Out on the road, though, you’re in control. There may be challenges and decisions to make, but the road won’t leave without you.
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 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.