I’ll never forget my first time. It started out a little rough: herky-jerky stops and starts, flailing legs, panicky sweating and thoughts of God, I hope no one is watching this. But once I had nailed down the basics, once I was finally out there with the throttle open, leaning into the curves, it hit me: I was riding a motorcycle, my motorcycle. It was pure, childlike joy.
My love affair with the motorcycle began with television. Watching Moto GP racing, where the bikes can top 200 miles per hour, I got my first hint that motorcyclists are a breed apart. But my dreams of racing glory went the way of most childhood fantasies, and it was not until Memorial Day a few years ago, during the annual motorcycle pilgrimage to Washington, DC known as Rolling Thunder, that the spark was re-ignited. Walking along the Mall, I was surrounded by acres of steel and chrome, American flags, POW patches on sun-bleached riders—some of them Vietnam veterans, but most clearly not—all of it enveloped by the omnipresent rumble of engines. It was Americana on two wheels. As I stood there on the dirt path, I felt ordinary in comparison, but it wasn’t age, experience or even the grizzled visages. It was the bike.
What is it about the motorcycle, and what sets those who ride them apart? Certainly, riding a motorcycle is a skill to be learned, and the stakes of failure are high. But the same thing goes for pilots, and no one ever whispers in a bar, “Don’t mess with him, he flies a Cessna.” Skydiving, mountain climbing, hang gliding—they’re all hard, and they’re all dangerous, but none is suffused with the spirit of independence, freedom and rebellion that the American motorcycle signifies. And none has developed a uniquely American culture. The motorcycle has become part of the larger American myth, so much so that to buy a certain type of motorcycle is to buy a little piece of that myth. How did this happen?
The notion that the motorcycle provides an experience fundamentally different from other forms of transportation is by no means exclusive to Americans. T.E. Lawrence, who claimed to have put 100,000 miles on motorcycles and eventually died on one, described his love of the ride thus:
The greatest pleasure of my recent life has been speed on the road. . . . I lose detail at even moderate speed but gain comprehension. . . . I could write for hours on the lustfulness of moving swiftly.
In his novel Slowness, Milan Kundera used the motorcycle as the literary vehicle, so to speak, for relating modernity, speed and memory: “The man hunched over his motorcycle can focus only on the present instant of his flight; he is caught in a fragment of time cut off from both the past and the future . . . .”
The aptitude for speed is but one of the motorcycle’s qualities that account for its inherent mystique. Add to this the constant danger, the lack of any barrier between the rider and the surrounding environment, and the skill and knowledge required to ride, and it’s easy to see why the motorcycle has an image all its own. But however fundamental these traits may be, they are merely the foundation of America’s unique motorcycle culture. The real point of departure is social, not mechanical.
The social history of the motorcycle is complex, as all social histories tend to be, but the current image of the American motorcycle begins with motorcycle clubs after the Second World War and their subsequent portrayal in the media and popular culture. As Paul Garson describes in his biker history, Born to Be Wild (2003), GIs returning home formed motorcycle clubs as a way of coping with the challenges of returning to civilian life. Perhaps it was a way to produce adrenaline boosts without having to get shot at, or perhaps it was a replacement for the camaraderie in the service. Whatever the reasons, motorcycle clubs rose in popularity, along with so-called“gypsy tours”, weekend events that could bring hundreds of riders together.
In most cases, this was perfectly harmless, but one event made an indelible imprint on the public consciousness. In 1947, during a large rally in Hollister, California, several motorcycle clubs started trouble. Local police detained fifty or sixty riders, mostly for relatively minor offenses. But they soon felt so overwhelmed by the large number of cyclists in town that they called in the state highway patrol for help.
National media quickly latched on to what became known as the Hollister riot. The San Francisco Chronicle described an “outburst of terrorism” in which 4,000 motorcyclists seized the town. Life magazine ran staged photographs of a slovenly biker sprawled across his machine surrounded by empty beer bottles. While it later emerged that these reports had exaggerated the violence, the Hollister riot had given birth to the trope of the “problem biker” in the American imagination.
As important as Hollister was as a media event, it was even more influential for its effect on popular culture. The accounts of the riot inspired a short story in Harper’s called “The Cyclists’ Raid”, which in turn was the foundation for the classic 1953 film The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando. Brando’s turn as the rebellious, Triumph-riding Johnny Strabler inspired the style of an entire generation, and The Wild One became a landmark for American motorcycle culture. “The film had a massive effect on thousands of young California motorcycle buffs”, Hunter S. Thompson later wrote. “In many ways, it was their version of The Sun Also Rises.”1
The Hollister cycle repeated itself a decade and a half later in a slightly different context. This time the bikers were members of the Hells Angels, a motorcycle club with a mean streak founded in San Bernardino but with chapters across California. The event was a Hells Angels beach party outside Monterey in 1964, and the crime an alleged rape of two girls. But the media reaction was the same. Media outlets nationwide seized on the salacious tale of heathen outlaws defiling teenage maidens, and the Hells Angels were catapulted from their deserved obscurity into the national psyche. Though the charges were eventually dropped for lack of evidence, the Angels had become a media bête noir. They were, in Thompson’s words, “the hundred-carat headline.”2
Whereas the Hollister bikers and The Wild One emerged amid postwar fears of juvenile delinquency, the Hells Angels surfaced in the tumultuous cultural sea of the Sixties, as the Beat Generation morphed into the counterculture. To many, the Angels were harbingers of cultural entropy, but Sixties radicals, political types and academics saw them as quintessential anti-heroes. Peace and love they were not, but as Tom Wolfe showed in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), their lawlessness and hostility to social mores made them icons of the counterculture state of nature. Their notoriety became cause for celebrity, a not-uncommon phenomenon of the American scene.
With the popularity of the Hells Angels came a resurgence of the biker film. This time around, it solidified the motorcycle’s image by invoking a classic American form: the Western. Several dozen biker movies were made from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s—now-obscure titles like The Wild Angels (1966), Cycle Savages (1969) and Hell’s Bloody Devils (1970). The genre reached it apogee with the counterculture classic Easy Rider (1969), complete with a motorcycle-paean soundtrack supplied by Steppenwolf and the Byrds. As Allison Perlman demonstrates in her analysis of the biker genre, the bikers in these films are “modern-day cowboys”, the gunslingers living at the edge of civilization.3 But there are differences: Like the “post-Westerns” of the same period, the biker movie is ambivalent about the conflict between the civilized and the uncivilized. “Whereas the western equated civilization with progress”, Perlman writes, “the biker movie conflates it with stasis and rigidity.” These themes captured the Zeitgeist of the era, accounting (along with the sex and violence) for much of the films’ popularity. The genre faded as the society that had sustained it shifted gears, but not before the outlaw motorcyclist had been firmly planted in the public consciousness.
Just as the foundational myth of “how the West was won” has become crucial to how we see ourselves as Americans, so the outlaw image has shaped motorcycle culture. The most obvious impact has been on motorcycle design itself.
Go shopping for a motorcycle and you’ll be presented with a range of different styles: massive touring bikes with CD players and air bags; high-tech BMW adventure bikes; flashy, ultra-fast crotch rockets from Japan and Italy; throwback Brit bikes; and, if you insist, dainty, underpowered scooters. But above all of these, making up almost half the U.S. market, rides the classic American cruiser: huge engine, loud pipes and ample chrome. So dominant is the cruiser style in America that just about every foreign manufacturer has at least one model in its line. None of them, however, approaches Harley-Davidson in either cruiser sales or biker cachet. With a lineage reaching back to 1903, Harleys are the archetype of the American cruiser, and just about the only thing a self-respecting outlaw would ride. They are the standard-bearers of American biker culture.
This fixation on a distinctly American type of motorcycle has encouraged a focus on maintaining traditional styling and engineering, despite a raft of technological improvements over the years. Some old-school Harley riders were skeptical of such innovations as fuel injection, belt drives and low-vibration engines. But changes have ultimately been embraced, in large part because Harley engineers are careful not to let them mar the classic aesthetic. The popular Softail line, for example, is meant to evoke the hardcore hardtail frames of yore but has back-saving rear suspension hidden under the seat. After all, it’s tough to go back to work on Monday when you have bruised kidneys.
There’s a sartorial style for riders, too, that seems designed to exude toughness. Black leather, of course, has long been a staple for bikers, in part because it offers excellent protection in the event of a crash. There are other, less expensive materials that provide the same protection these days, but it’s not about function. Leather just looks cooler.
A similar, though far less rational attitude surrounds the subject of helmets, which is governed by the principle that the coolness of a helmet is inversely proportional to its likelihood of protecting the brain. This requires bikers to seek out the tiniest helmets allowed by law, amounting to little more than a plastic yarmulke. And wherever helmets aren’t mandated, many riders go without, thus helping to earn the sobriquet “future organ donor” from conventional motorists. Most riders will probably tell you that they don’t like how a helmet feels, or that they want to feel the wind blowing through their hair (what’s left of it). Or they will tell you that it blunts their awareness, and they might even actually believe it. Fewer would admit that helmets just don’t look cool. Part of the rebel image is having nothing to lose, and nothing says “nothing to lose” like not wearing a helmet.
Yes, there’s irony here. The biker ethos is about being free from social constraints, yet that ethos imposes a fairly rigid mode of dress and behavior. And customization is key, as long as you’re customizing a cruiser. There are rules, it seems, to living without rules. Moreover, the notion of freedom as expressed in the biker film means living outside society, with its mortgages, car payments and jobs—all the trappings of the modern consumer economy. Yet buying a motorcycle as an act of off-the-shelf rebellion is just another form of consumerism. You can lease one today with no money down, but is that how you stick it to the man?
Or so a cynic might argue. If the end result is that more people can become bikers, however, who cares why they do it? We know from history that America is a land of contradictions. As H.W. Brands has noted in these pages, and as Tocqueville noted long ago, Americans make a fetish of freedom while preferring social conformity.4 “The American people enjoy three great blessings”, Mark Twain wrote. “Free speech, a free press, and the good sense not to use either.” In that sense, the most American thing about our motorcycle culture might be this contradiction: The biker myth allows us to celebrate as patriotic the rejection of our own way of life, if only for a few hours.
All of this obscures what is most important about motorcycling, however: the sense of community and shared experience that transcends nationality. This is the sentiment at the root of the motorcycle club. It’s the reason bikers wave to one another on the road, regardless of race or ride, even though they’ve never met. This sense of camaraderie, at once highly individualist and communal, explains the motorcycle’s role in bringing together Vietnam veterans—not just from America, but Australia and South Korea, too—for the Ride to the Wall, Rolling Thunder’s annual journey to the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. It is a unique event for veterans of a unique war, and it perfectly illustrates the power of social context that gives the Vietnam Memorial its meaning.
As for me, I’ve never been a Harley guy. I guess they’ve always seemed a little—dare I say it—conventional. So I mount my own bit of rebellion: I ride a Triumph.
1. Thompson, “The Motorcycle Gangs: Losers and Outsiders”, The Nation, May 17, 1965.
2. Thompson, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (Random House, 1967).
3. Perlman, “The Brief Ride of the Biker Movie”, International Journal of Motorcycle Studies (March 2007).
4. Brands, “Republic of Pretense”, The American Interest (July/August 2008).