by Gary Charpentier
A funny thing happened to me the other day. I was just riding along, minding my own business, when a fellow motorcyclist (he would call himself “biker”) rode past me and just kind of sneered. He looked at me like I was a particularly disgusting species of insect. I had never met the man before in my life, and had done nothing to provoke this kind of behavior, but then it dawned on me: Of course! I must be riding the wrong motorcycle!
There will always be snobs in any endeavor, I guess. That’s just human nature. In motorcycling we have snobs of several different persuasions. I know that motorcycles in general attract those with a larger-than-normal competitive urge, or perhaps just a simple surplus of ego. On the one hand, this is what makes us an interesting group to hang around with. But the flip-side is the aggressive ignorance displayed by one subgroup toward another on the basis of motorcycle brand name or genre. Anyone who has ever ridden a non-Harley-Davidson to Sturgis or Daytona will know exactly what I am talking about, but this same disease afflicts other segments of our two-wheeled population in more subtle ways. Not satisfied with our status as outsiders to the majority four-wheeled public out on the freeways, we seek to further isolate ourselves into little cliques based on brand loyalty or riding style, and heap our derision on anyone who does not ride or think exactly the same as we do. All you rugged individualists out there, suddenly go out and buy the same bike, the same leathers, the same patches and even tattoos, so you can look just like every other member of your chosen tribe. No longer unique, you are accepted by others just like you, but at what price? No matter how much you spend on your bike and your gear, it’s not going to change who you are.
Throughout my riding career, I have resisted this urge to merge. I was riding Harleys before they were a fashion statement, back when they were simply the only motorcycles with that big V-twin rumble and all that chrome. Well, there were a very few Guzzis and Ducati’s around, but I wasn’t as sophisticated back then, and didn’t quite comprehend Italian motorbikes. I sold my Sportster shortly after I saw the first RUB’s, (Rich Urban Bikers) begin to appear in Southern California in the late 80s. Gee thanks, Malcolm Forbes. What had been a really decent all-around motorcycle was now an over-priced symbol of executive boldness and panache, a regular Capitalist Tool on which the privileged would preen and pose to show everybody how deep-down Bad they were. I was sickened by the whole scene, and my other hard-core riding buddies were caught flat-footed as well. Suddenly the price of parts went through the roof, and were hard to come by for those older, obsolete models. Then too, the bias of the Big Twin boys against the Sportsters became intolerable. I busted a few heads in defense of my little piglet before I decided that it just wasn’t worth it anymore. I sold my bike, moved back to Minnesota, and bought myself a nice little Japanese standard, which I soon converted into a righteous cafe racer. I would ride to places like Neuman’s Bar in North St. Paul, park right next to the biggest, shiniest hog, swagger right on in and belly up to the bar. The reactions this caused were priceless! All puffed up, full of themselves, these badass “bikers” would mutter about that “Jap crap” daring to take up space near their precious Milwaukee Iron. Mumble grumble, bitch and moan, all the while giving me the ol’ hairy eye ball. I would just smile and turn back to the bar. Nobody ever called me out, as I was still wearing a suit of muscles tailored by a decade in the Marine Corps. But oh, how I wanted them to…
Quite a few years have passed since then, and I have grown out of the need to prove myself that way. I bought my Ducati and learned what serious sport riding was all about. I also learned what real courage it takes to ride a modern sportbike to anywhere near it’s ultimate performance potential. Courage, that is, with a certain ignorance of the possible consequences. Nothing I had ever done on any other motorcycle prepared me for the experience of the racetrack. Here I could ride as fast as I dared! Just twist that grip and hang on, processing the visual, aural, and tactile input faster than I had ever imagined. Roadracing really sends your mind into overdrive! All the while, underlying the immediate calculations of speed, traction, brake markers, and lean angles was the unnerving awareness that one mistake could send you sliding and tumbling along the ground at vicious, dismembering velocity! Crash in the wrong place and you end up a big leather sack full of broken bones and torn flesh! I would think any normal guy would gladly face a barroom brawl with a bunch of Hell’s Hooligans™ before daring to hold the throttle wide open through Turns one and two at Brainerd. But then, roadracers are not normal guys, (or gals). The attitude, however, remains the same: “If you don’t ride like me, think like me, and look like me, you are not worthy!”. What a shame.
So yes, I was really disgusted with my treatment by those who would call themselves “bikers”. But then one of those situations developed that gives balance to the entire picture. I ran out of gas the other day. After only 55 miles of around-town riding the tank on my Honda NX went inexplicably dry. I had left the petcock on reserve after my last fill-up, and all my riding had been in fourth gear or lower, so my mileage suffered accordingly. There was no warning sputter, no surging or bucking, the thing simply quit. So I coasted down an off-ramp and took stock of the situation. No way around it, I faced about a mile of pushing this old mule to the nearest gas station, on a bum leg recovering from recent knee surgery. Oh joy! However, about a block into my ordeal, an old Chevy Malibu pulled up with a young lady behind the wheel. Her name was Beth, and she owned an `87 Harley-Davidson. Could she lend me a hand? Well, certainly! We found a nearby parking lot to stash the bike, and she drove me to the gas station where I got a small plastic gas can and filled it up. All the while, her lunch from Taco Bell was growing cold on the front seat between us. But without hesitation, she took time out from her busy day to help another rider in need, even though I wasn’t riding one of the Holy Hogs. She was a biker in the true tradition, with a real sense of honor, and for that Beth, I salute you!
Today I ride with everybody. I ride what I like, or what I can afford, and to hell with anybody who judges me for that reason alone. Last year I rode my Ducati on the Flood Run, with a group of Harley riders, and had a ball! These folks know and appreciate me for who I am, not what I ride. There are so many fantastic bikes for sale out there today, I want to try each and every one of them! I will not limit myself to one style or brand of bike, that would be foolish. I will go on Sunday rides with the sportbike crowd, and if the only bike I have running at the time is my NX-650, then I will resign myself to bringing up the rear, and helping sweep up the wreckage of those who ride over their heads. I’ve been there, and others have helped me pick up the pieces, so it’s only fair that I return the favor.
Now, I may even buy another Harley-Davidson someday, when my savings account catches up with my motorcycling ambitions. They are now well built and reliable machines, and that new twin-cam motor looks promising. Excelsior-Henderson and Polaris Victory look pretty intriguing, and I certainly wouldn’t turn down a test ride on one of those either. But right now my tastes run towards the smaller, lighter, quicker kind of bike. I want to build something unique, a rolling sculpture unlike anything else out there, which will be equally at home dodging traffic in the city or carving up the alphabet roads. A vintage roadrace replica, like one of the Specials that would have contested an early `70’s Manx TT, perhaps. I’ll have to look around my garage and shed and see what I can come up with. But when it is done, we will ride the Slimey Crud, the Flood Run, and any number of other events. We will not be discouraged by the attitudes of a few ignorant souls. Go and preach your particular gospel to someone who cares. Don’t look for me to join your congregation, I don’t go to church anymore. All I want to do is ride.