Wednesday, December 29, 2004

2 Wheels & 1 Motor

Here's a wake-up call for all you custom-cruiser-expensive-chopper-mod-supersport-riders out there: no matter how much you customize, modify, glitter or add "bling" to your ride, it's still just two wheels and a motor! Not that there's anything wrong with "personalizing" your bike; I think it's a great way to express your personal tastes not to mention that it's simply fun. The problem is (IMHO) when people start taking it too seriously and start forgetting why they got into motorcycling to begin with.

The first indication that you may be taking this "custom" thing too seriously is when you stop riding the bike! If you're reading this and a few bells are going off right now here's my advice to you: go out into the temperature-humidity-controlled garage you built specifically for storing your precious custom bike, disarm the laser-guided missile burglar intrusion system, start the bike and put a few hundred miles on it. Yes, I truly am implying that you should actually ride the damn thing, after all, that is the point of owning a vehicle, isn't it?

I've always enjoyed observing society and how everybody tries to fit in. At a bike rally last summer in my hometown of Caraquet, New Brunswick (for you geophites - that's in Canada) I got a kick out of studying the wide range of motorcyclists that attend. This particular event isn't limited to specific styles of motorcycles (as, unfortunately, most other rallies are) so it was interesting to see a crotch-rocket sharing a parking space with a low-rider! What really made me laugh though, was the number of so-called "bikers" that would drive to the rally in a truck or van, towing their precious ride in a covered trailer... GET A LIFE!!! I mean seriously, why enter a marathon if you're going to drive the whole thing in your car with your sneakers in a box!

There are exceptions to every rule, and here are the two I admire: Ratbikes and true Choppers! Ratbikes are simply motorcycles that should have been left for dead a long time ago! They're usually identified by the amount of rust and duct tape or chicken wire holding the thing together. I find these to be ingenious in much the same way as the old American cars rolling the streets in Cuba. The modern day mechanics that keep these beasts running simply use whatever is available to them and make it fit... Truly ingenious! However, I don't think these should be street-legal... But then again, neither should half the 18-wheelers I see on the highway. And which is likely to cause more damage in an accident: ratbike or 18-wheeler?

I use the term Chopper in the truest sense; the following is a brief history that I found on the Net:

"After soldiers returned home from World War II, they seemed dissatisfied with the motorcycles that were available to them from Harley-Davidson and Indian. They remembered the machines they had seen in Europe that were lighter in weight and seemed to have more excitement. The soldiers started to hang out with their motorcycle buddies to regain some of the camaraderie they had felt in the service. These groups of buddies soon decided that their motorcycles needed changes.

First, they either removed or shortened (bobbed) the fenders on their bikes. This reduced the weight and made the bikes look better in their eyes. These bikes began to be called bobbers. Changes kept occurring but it wasn't until the late 60's and early 70's that the bobbers gave way to the choppers. After release of the seminal movie Easy Rider in 1969, a whole new movement began. Riders wanted a bike like the one ridden by Peter Fonda in the movie. They wanted a chopper.

Just what is a chopper? Like the bobber, the chopper is created by removing or chopping off unnecessary components from the bike. Who needs a windshield, front fenders, big headlights, crash bars, big seats, etc? Chop them off and make the bike lighter. Bikers started raking the front end so the angle of the fork to the ground began decreasing allowing for a greatly increased wheelbase. Handlebars were raised high and called ape hangers. The front tire was made small and the rear tire was made fat. Some bikers even removed the battery and used a magneto to reduce weight. The gas tank became small as was the headlight. Anything deemed to be unnecessary was removed."

So to all you guys out there riding Choppers, refer to the above definition. Chopping is meant to simplify the bike - not make it a rolling piece of chrome art! When bikers first started "chopping" their bikes, it was to make them ride better. Somehow along the way, this definition got distorted. When I look at these TV shows that glorify "custom" bike builders, I wonder how many new motorcyclists out there are actually getting into it to ride? Truthfully, for most of them it's just "bling".

Maybe I just don't get it - but I'm usually much more impressed by people who travel great distances ON their bike; instead of going great lengths to SHOW their bike. Here are some motorcycle travellers that have impressed me:

  • Ted Simon: The original adventure biker. This guy went around the world on a Triumph and chronicled the entire journey in "Jupiter's Travels", one of the most interesting travel diaries ever written. Just imagine: four years, 54 countries, and 63,000 miles. Simon's writing style is at times serious, and at others light and humourous. If you only intend on reading one motorcycle-oriented book in your lifetime, make it this one.
  • Neil Peart: This guy really understands what motorcycling is all about - he gets it! After going through two traumatic losses in his life (both daughter and wife) Neil didn't feel like he had anything left to live for. Usually this type of mindset can only lead to darker times, but Neil found one thing that still made him feel better (or, at least, kept his mind off other things): his BMW R1100GS. So he hopped on and started out on a journey that lead him through just about all of North and Central America. It goes a long way to show people that rock stars are human too (Neil Peart is the drummer/lyricist for rock supergroup Rush). His excellent book "Ghost Rider" chronicles his journey on what he chose to call the "healing road". I had always admired Neil for his musical talent, I now hold him in even higher regard as a great person. Highly recommended reading.
  • Christopher P. Baker: "Mi Moto Fidel", Chris Baker's intriguing account of his three-month ride through Cuba on a fire-engine red Beemer is perhaps the most thorough portrait of this faded Communist country to date. Baker effectively captures the essence of the Cuban people - primarily their generosity and resilient spirit - and his various dalliances with beautiful habaneras will pique readers' interest (men's more than women's, understandably). By the time Baker winds up back in Havana he has covered some 7,000 miles. This book will make you want to head out somewhere looking for adventure.
  • Keith Kimber & Tania Brown: If you look up "Motorcycle Adventurer" in any dictionary, these two are THE definition. In 1983 they purchased a used Honda CX500 for $1400 with the intention of touring the world for a year or two... They're still going - on the same 1983 CX500! They've been around the world a few times, never stopping very long. Their story (the bits and pieces I've managed to find) is truly amazing. I'm actually thinking of starting a petition to have their bike put in the Smithsonian. As a journalist for Motorcyclist magazine recently put it: "Imagine how far these two would have gone if they'd had a BMW R1200GS - the moon?"
To sum it up, let's quote the late Freddie Mercury, lead singer of rock group Queen from the song "Fat Bottomed Girls" (no political correctness in that title!):

"Get on your bikes and ride!"

1 comment:

James said...

Agreed. I bike is a bike is a bike. Like your bike the way it is, and it's cool. Good work.