(This is the final essay I submitted for English 367.05-The US Folk Experience @ OSU. It’s a long read! Enjoy!)

William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson rolled out the first Harley-Davidson from their 10’ x 13’ “manufacturing facility” in 1903. An icon was born and America would fall in love with motorcycles. America’s obsession with motorcycles has indeed been a storied love affair.  Her people’s passion for this two-wheeled machine, played out in her streets, news media, & silver screens, gave birth to a folklore group that would be labeled everything from deviant criminals (Barker 101)  to upstanding citizens with” hearts as big as their Harleys” (Harmon 43).

It wasn’t until after she relied on the machine in World War II that what we now know as “the biker” was born. Soldiers returning home from the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific bought the surplus Army Harley-Davidson and Indian motorcycles cheap and began riding in part to escape the harsh reality of their deeds in war and to recapture the exhilaration of life and death situations. They gathered together in groups bound by the camaraderie of war and their love for motorcycles. Some formed organized clubs. Some formed loosely organized riding groups while others rode solo only meeting other riders occasionally. They started to fall into a pattern of dress, behavior, and attitude segmenting themselves from societal norms. The biker made an arrival in the American vernacular in the worst way during the Hollister Motorcycle Rally in July of 1947. This first impression based largely on sensationalized media reports of crazed bikers taking over the town and a fabricated photo (Gardiner) misrepresented the biker and America still doesn’t know who he is more than six decades later.

This essay draws on the author’s twenty plus years of experience riding motorcycles, four years as member of a motorcycle club, and speaking with other riders about riding and the lifestyle. Additional research cited in this essay was conducted in a public space observation at the Easyriders Motorcycle Show in Columbus, Oh, conducting interviews at and outside the show, and in review of scholarly articles on motorcycle subculture and focuses on the riders of heavy and light cruiser and touring motorcycles. Riders of these types of motorcycles fit into two broad categories: motorcyclists and bikers. Which group a motorcycle rider fits is a point of contention for some. While anyone can be a motorcyclist, the badge “biker” must be earned.

A motorcyclist is anyone who rides a motorcycle. They can be “weekend warriors,” “RUBs,” or motorcycle enthusiasts. The classifications share similarities while maintaining their distinctions. A motorcyclist can be a member of more than one subgroup. They are also sometimes members of clubs, riding organizations, and/or motorcycle rights/interest organizations.

A weekend warrior is someone who rides on days when there are no other real obligations, such as a job. They also sometimes ride to a “bike night at the local waterin’ hole” (Clemmons). This affords them the opportunity to ride without impacting their daily routine. They wear t-shirts and jeans, sometimes with a leather vest and jacket. A doo-rag will adorn their head in place of or under a helmet. Their vests and jackets usually have some sort of patches sewn on. Some of the more popular patches are ones that feature bald eagle and American flag artwork. They may have phrases about being an American biker, about being a Veteran, or some political epigram. Their doo rags and t-shirts often feature similar content. Particularly among Harley-Davidson owners, t-shirts are usually from a Harley-Davidson dealership that they either visited themselves or a friend visited where the t-shirt was purchased as a gift.

The weekend warriors’ motorcycles represent a wide range of brands and types, but are usually of the medium to heavy cruiser variety. They may be outfitted with aftermarket (not manufactured by the motorcycle’s original manufacturer) parts or upgrades in an effort to make the motorcycle a unique expression of the rider/owner. In the past few years, motorcycle manufacturers have entered in the aftermarket segment in an effort to capture a booming market. Harley-Davidson for example publishes catalogues of hundreds of pages each year full of “Genuine Motor Company Parts and Accessories” so their customers can make each bike their own. There are even collections of parts and accessories for that “themed look.”

RUBs, Rich Urban Bikers, are a special kind of weekend warrior. They still ride at times when their daily routine will be impacted the least. However, they usually ride an expensive custom built (one-off) or custom manufactured (limited or short production) motorcycle. These motorcycles are usually built with high performance v-twin motors and are adorned with custom artwork from world-renowned artists. They can also be heavily customized mass produced motorcycles that resemble very little of the canvas they began life as. They are flashy works of chrome that only see the road a few times a year. These bikes are also affectionately known as “trailer queens” because they spend equal amounts of if not more time on trailers than with a rider in the saddle.

RUBs wear $80 Ed Hardy shirts or some other tattoo apparel such as Afflictions as well as t-shirts from various Harley-Davidson dealerships with their jeans and leather in an effort to fit in with their less monetarily fortunate brethren. If they wear leather, it is crisper and less road worn than the weekend warriors’ leathers. Sometimes, these riders will go as far as wearing shorts and tank-tops. RUBs are usually well-manicured and may wear a bandana tied in a wide band around their heads.

The biker saves special disdain for RUBs, viewing them as men who own a motorcycle as a status symbol and as riders who have lost touch with what it is to appreciate traditional riding at all. They ride to local watering hole bike nights and to rallies on weekends to be seen. Quinn and Forsyth state that “RUBs find biker symbolism attractive because it permits symbolic rebellion or escape from the over scheduled, segmented, and stressful life of the modern professional” (Quinn & Forsyth 244-245). RUBs usually decorate their bikes’ back seats with women that more closely resemble a Barbie Doll than a real woman. She sometimes has spent as much on “aftermarket upgrades” as the RUBs she rides with. Towmater, a member of a very large motorcycle club with members nationwide, described his experience with a RUB as someone who invents his tradition based on what he thinks is authentic biker tradition at the Little Sturgis Rally and Races in Sturgis, KY with a story about “this guy that’s made a good living for himself in construction.” He “wanted to meet up with some of my buddies and ride with us to the rally. We rode for a couple of hours and met this guy just outside of Sturgis. He pulls his bike off a trailer that cost more than a lot of bikes I know and rides the last few miles into the rally. When we got to the rally, he parked that bike and sat there with his Barbie doll of a girlfriend and drank beer. That was his idea of riding to a rally” (Towmater).

Weekend warriors and RUBs differ vastly from the motorcycle enthusiast. Unlike the weekend warrior or the RUB, the enthusiast will go on extended motorcycle trips and occasionally ride to work as well as the local bike nights and weekend rallies. Bikers hold more respect for the enthusiast than the RUB or weekend warrior questioning their authenticity and skill less since they vary their routine to accommodate riding for the purposes of utility or purely transportation. Towmater said that’s it a matter of respect stating that “I don’t care what this or that guy does, but that doesn’t mean I’ll ride peg to peg with him.” (Towmater)

The motorcycle enthusiast’s attire reflects a purpose driven dress. They will still wear motorcycle t-shirts and sport leathers blazoned with patches. However, their gear may sacrifice form over function. Their jeans are worn and they may even have dedicated sets of riding jeans. Their leathers have seen road time and it shows. For the motorcycle enthusiast, chaps are not a fashion statement, they are an outer garment meant to keep their legs dry and warm. They also own and use rain gear, something that the weekend warrior has little use for and the RUB has no concept of.

A biker’s uniform is more purpose driven. A biker will own gear that is more functional or diverse allowing him or her to ride in a wider variety of weather conditions, such as rain and cold weather and sometimes even snow. Bikers wear wallet chains not to look cool, but because they understand that losing a wallet on the road is a very unfortunate occurrence. The biker’s motorcycle is also more focused on function than form. They may have some “chrome goodies” decorating them. They’ll also have saddlebags or some sort of luggage carry system to stow necessities such as water and food as well as an emergency tool-kit.

While a biker may ride any brand of motorcycle, the common perception is that he or she rides an American V-Twin, particularly a Harley-Davidson. The Harley-Davidson is seen as the final destination brand or motorcycle of choice. Many riders of all types when asked what they ride will offer some reason why they don’t ride a Harley if they don’t ride a Harley. They may indicate that they can’t afford one or would rather wait until they have more experience before “upgrading.” The underlying concept is that one can’t be an authentic biker unless he rides a Harley. To further this concept, if they don’t voice some desire to ride a Harley-Davidson in the future, they more often than not describe their choice in brand of motorcycle as a decision to ride a higher quality, more technologically advanced motorcycle. “I would rather ride my bike than work on it,” they may say. The Harley rider sees this as a jealousy manifesting itself in an insult and sees the irony in their insult as two-fold.

Harley-Davidsons based on the late Evolution motor design and now the Twin-Cam that all Harley-Davidson big-twins (a motorcycle with a displacement more than 1300cc) are based on are just as reliable and more technologically advanced than some of their import competition. The new Harley-Davidson touring line features anti-lock brakes. A factory installed security system upgrade offered by Harley-Davidson will even prevent the motorcycle from starting unless a radio frequency identification device is with ten feet of the motorcycle.

The “old school hard-core” biker many motorcyclists place in such high regard takes pride in repairing his motorcycle on his own. There is a certain sense of accomplishment in making a roadside repair while in a foreign land hundreds of miles from home. Twenty or thirty years ago, a biker needed to carry some sort of toolkit with him to make such repairs. Carrying a toolkit now is partly necessity and partly tradition. The rider that makes roadside repairs authenticates himself as a biker with other riders and biker, sharing stories of his roadside repair accomplishments as fond memories. Towmater tells a story about a “brother grinnin’ from ear to ear over a beer tellin’me about the time he had to ziptie the throttlebody back on to his old Harley police cruiser on the side of the interstate in the middle of nowhere North Dakota during a rainstorm until he could limp it to a shop the next morning and buy some parts” (Towmater).

While the public perception of the biker is of a tattooed, leather clad motorcycle rider (Quinn & Forsyth 237-238), the common thread among motorcycle riders, like Krazy Ken, a black rider that attended the Easyrider Motorcycle Show, is that a biker embodies a lifestyle of which riding is a large part of (Ken). The biker’s tradition is authentically his own, which in turn makes him an authentic biker. “A biker dresses and acts the way he does, because that’s who he is not because he is trying to fit into some mold that he thinks he should because he rides a motorcycle” (Dick). While there is no definitive number of miles a rider must log per year to call himself a biker, most riders regarded as bikers often ride ten thousand or more miles per year. The biker may still go to the local watering hole bike nights or rallies, but will spend limited time there and views the ride as more of an integral part of the event than the actual event itself. Instead of riding to the local event or “spot” a few miles down the road, the biker will ride out of his way to experience a new sight and road. The biker is someone who will ride a day or more to an event or rally only stopping to sleep, eat, and take care of biological necessities. Sometimes the biker may even stop and bed down under the stars for the night next to his or her motorcycle. This type of biker is referred to by other bikers as “scooter trash” and embodies the rustic western cowboy image and his traditions that has been romanticized in Hollywood. Towmater related a time when two of his “brothers rode from Jacksonville, FL to Nashville, TN just to meet a couple of other brothers and ride back with them to Daytona for Bike Week. If a guy that’ll ride to Daytona from Jacksonville via Nashville ain’t a biker I don’t know who is.”

The lines between biker, motorcycle enthusiast, and motorcyclist are often blurred and can be crossed. Biker Dick, a long-time rider and Lieutenant in a major metropolitan police department, doesn’t find a motorcyclist any less of a rider than a biker in that neither can live without his motorcycle saying, “I may not be able to ride as much as I used to before joining the force and having children, but I can never live without a bike. To me that separates a motorcyclist, who can also be a biker, from other riders” (Dick).

Motorcycle riders inevitably congregate. The lone wolf syndrome exists in fewer numbers than the pack mentality. Riders form many different types of groups based on a common interest from the loosely organized social groups or cliques to highly structured motorcycle clubs with full three-piece patches.

Many riders prefer the loose structure of the social riding group over the motorcycle club for its lack of commitment. They may give themselves and their groups names and wear them on their vests and jackets as in the case of a riding club described by Tequila Tom, the president of Towmater’s charter (club chapter). “In a riding club, you can go online and buy the official club patch. Riding clubs are made up of riders that only see each other once a week and membership is as easy as showing up to a couple of rides” (Tom).

Motorcycle clubs in contrast are much more difficult to join and their official patches are much more difficult to obtain. “Our patches are exclusive,” says Tequila Tom. “We have one vendor nationwide and you can only get one by being invited to join” (Tom).  The motorcycle club’s patch is material folklore worn on the back of a leather or demin vest announcing to the world that the wearer has endured the ritual of prospecting and has earned his club’s colors. The patch is made up of three pieces, a top rocker with the club’s name sewn in, a bottom rocker with the club’s location sewn in, and the club’s logo as the center piece.

The Hells Angels Motorcycle Club addresses club membership requirements in a section of their website:

As the saying goes, If you have to ask the question, you probably won’t understand the answer. The key words are Motorcycle Club, which means they are true motorcycle enthusiasts and their motorcycle is their primary means of transportation. On the average a club member will ride 20,000 mile plus a year, and this means rain, snow, or sunshine. Each Charter varies in their requirement, but if you’re really interested you should talk to a member in your area. And if you have to ask where the nearest Charter is to you….you aren’t ready to join a Motorcycle Club (The Hells Angels).

This only skims the surface of what is required to join a club. At the very least, a rider must meet the requirements to be called a biker by the club. Depending on the exclusivity of the club, the probationary and /or prospecting period can last months or years. A rider will begin his journey to membership with a loose association with a member or members of the charter (chapter) he may ultimately join. After some time associating with one individual member or a small group of members of the charter, he may be asked to associate or “hang around” with the club, earning him the appropriate moniker “hang around.” He may be asked to probate after some time as a hang around and an expression of mutual interest by the club. As a probate, he may not wear a patch but may still be required to partake in club functions and perform club duties. Some clubs have no probate period and a hang around may become a prospect. A prospect will initially wear one rocker, usually the bottom rocker as the club name is in the top rocker and reserved for more advanced prospects. After some time as a prospect and earning both rockers, he may be invited to join the club. His patch is then completed with the center piece when the prospect is patched out, or made a full member.

The ritual of earning a patch is ended with ritual celebrations called “patch out parties”. Each club practices their own traditions in these parties. “Patching out a new brother is a festive occasion,” said Tequila Tom. “When we patch out a new brother, we’ll give him a beer bath. After he puts on his cut [vest with club patch] for the first time, we’ll all pour beer on him and hug and kiss him” (Tom).

Most motorcycle clubs, in particular 1% or outlaw motorcycle clubs, maintain some level of secrecy. They will proudly wear their colors (patch) and make the location of their clubhouse known, but the inner workings of the club itself remains a closely guarded secret. In fact during the performance of research for this essay, the author was denied an interview with all of Outlaws Motorcycle Club (MC) charters in Ohio. Interest expressed in questioning members of the Outlaws on their opinions of what makes a motorcyclist a biker was met with refusal. One member of the Outlaw Motorcycle Club expressed concern about the negative image portrayed by Gangland,  a television documentary about “some of America’s most notorious street gangs”  (Gangland: Biker Wars) at the Easyrider Motorcycle Show saying, “with all of the shit going on with us and the History Channel right now, we don’t wanna talk to anybody,”

1% clubs are just that. They pride themselves on being the one percent of the motorcycle community that breaks from the norms. They are also referred to as outlaw motorcycle clubs for the same reason. Law enforcement labels these clubs as organized crime on a motorcycle, while they maintain they are “just a club” (The Hells Angels). RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, Title 18, United States Code, Sections 1961-1968) was enacted in large part as a tool to bring down the Mafia (Grell). It has also been used to fight organized crime perpetuated by outlaw motorcycle clubs. The Knoxville County Sheriff’s Office recently raided an Outlaws MC clubhouse searching for illegal weapons and narcotics finding none (Stambaugh).

This concept of outlaw motorcycle clubs as violent gangs perpetuated by pop culture is largely untrue. For example Biker Dick’s department’s gang task force only devotes 5% of its resources to motorcycle gangs adding that “very few calls come in about outlaw motorcycle clubs. If the general public isn’t calling us about them, they aren’t on our radar” (Dick). In fact the riders that the general public identifies as bikers, members of the one percent clubs, are in fact not the ones committing the crimes. “It’s the guy that believes in order to be a biker he has to commit violent crimes that’s duped into doing the gang’s dirty work. The outlaw club has no interest in making him a member, only using him. From the law enforcement perspective, the ones that have something to prove are the ones we are concerned about” (Dick).

This stereotype of the biker as a violent outlaw is also perpetuated by riders that want the public to align them with violent deviants. “They carry weapons like the characters in Sons of Anarchy because that’s what they think they are supposed to do. That’s how they want people to view them” (Dick). One group in particular, Bikers Against Child Abuse “uses biker imagery” in direct contrast of the stereotype “to support victims of child abuse as [the victims’] cases progress through the courts” (Quinn & Forsyth 238). Whether used for positive reasons or not, perpetuation of the stereotype only adds to the esoteric quality of the term “biker.”

The subjective meaning of the term “biker” within the motorcycle community, motorcycle club secrecy, and stereotype perpetuation may prevent the lay person from ever really understanding what it means to be a “biker.” That seems to be ok with bikers though. As the saying goes, “If I have to explain, you wouldn’t understand.”

Works Cited

Barker, Tom. “One Percent Bikers Club: A Description.” Trends in Organized Crime 9.1. Print (Fall 2005): 101112.

Clemmons, Kimberly. Interview. 21 February 2011.

Dick, Biker. Interview. 3 March 2011.

Gangland: Biker Wars. The History Channel. 2010. Television.

Gardiner, Mark E. “The real “Wild Ones’ The 1947 Hollister Motorcycle Riot .” 1988. Web. 8 March 2011 <http://www.salinasramblersmc.org/history/Classic_Bike_Article.htm>.

Grell, Jeff. “RICOAct.com.” Web. 27 February 2011 <http://www.ricoact.com/>.

Harmon, Melissa Burdick. “Hearts as Big as Their Harleys.” Biography. Print. December 1997: 36-43.

Ken, Krazy. Interview. 12 February 2011.

Quinn, James F. and Craig J. Forsyth. “leathers and rolexs: the symbolism and values of the motorcycle club.” Deviant Behavior 30. Print (2009): 235-265.

Stambaugh, J.J. “Member of Outlaws motorcycle club says raid violated his rights.” knoxnews. Web. 31 January 2010. 27 February 2011 <http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2010/jan/31/member-outlaws-motorcycle-club-says-raid-violated-/>.

“Strange Days with Bob Saget: Riding Shotgun with Hardcore Bikers.” Strange Days with Bob Saget – A&E TV. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <http://www.aetv.com/strange-days-with-bob-saget/video/index.jsp?bclid=692927169001&bcpid=670670891001&bctid=692722581001>.

The Hells Angels. “Hells Angels Motorcyclye Club Worldwide.” Web. 27 February 2011 <http://www.hells-angels.com/?HA=faq>.

Tom, Tequila. Interview. 2 March 2011.

Towmater. Interview. 28 February 2011.

 

Bibliography

Barker, Tom. “One Percent Bikers Club.” Trends in Organized Crime 9.1 (Fall 2005): 101-12. Print. Provides an insight into 1% motorcycle clubs including membership numbers, patch description, and club associations through an extensive review of literature review of biker websites, newspaper articles, popular books, scholarly research, court cases, as well as interviews and associations with 1% bikers and law enforcement. Barker is professor of Criminal Justice and Police Studies at Eastern Kentucky University and has published many books on gangs and organized crime.

Gardiner, Mark E. “The Real Wild Ones  The 1947 Hollister Motorcycle Riot.” Salinas Ramblers Motorcycle Club Home Page. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <http://www.salinasramblersmc.org/history/Classic_Bike_Article.htm>. This article is a collection of first hand accounts of the Hollister, California motorcycle rally of 1947. It was originally published on Classic Bike, which is no longer available. Gardiner is a retired motorcycle racer and journalist. He claims to be the most widely published motorcycle journalist in the last five years.

Maxwell, Andrew H. “Motorcyclists and community in post-industrial urban America.” Urban Anthropology & Studies of Cultural Systems & World Economic Development  27, 3/4 (1998): 263 – 300. Print. Discusses the public image and stereotype of motorcyclists in the United States.  Discusses the motorcyclist and communal lifestyle built around the motorcycle as a form of transportation, discrimination faced by motorcyclists, and structure of clubs and gatherings. Maxwell holds a PhD from Boston University and is professor of Social Anthropology in Montclair State University.

Quinn, James F. and Forsyth, Craig G. “Leathers and Rolexs: The Symbolism and Values of the Motorcycle Club.” Deviant Behavior 30 (2009): 235 – 65. Academic Search Complete (Ebsco). Web. 21 February 2011. Describes various motorcycle groups and clubs as well as the  edgework of motorcycling and the values of outlaw motorcycle clubs within the context of their demeanor and appearance  Quinn is a professor and Director of the Addictions Program at the University of North Texas. His research interests include sex offending/addiction, gangs, corrections, offender treatment, and the drugs-crime connection. He has been commended by the Center for Gang Research, the Texas Legislature, and the Texas Parole division. Quinn holds a PhD in Sociology from Louisiana State University. Forsyth is a Professor of Sociology and the Head of the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He holds a PhD from Louisiana State University. His research interests include deviance, criminology, the death penalty, maritime industry, and the social impact of fisheries and the oil industry.

Telephone interview. 3 Mar. 2011. Biker Dick is self-proclaimed non-biker motorcyclist who is also a Lieutenant on a major metropolitan police force. He was worked in the drug gang task force and now heads up the midnight shift in the most crime ridden sector of the department’s jurisdiction.

Telephone interview. 2 March 2011. Tequila Tom is the president of the largest chapter in his charter’s state of the self-proclaimed fourth largest motorcycle club in America. He has been riding motorcycles off and on for three decades.

Telephone interview. 28 February 2011. Towmater is a new member of the Tequila Tom’s club’s charter who has been riding motorcycles for nearly a decade.

Thompson, Hunter S. Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. New York : Random House, 1967. Print. Offered many people a glimpse inside a culture they would never experience first-hand by providing and eye witness account of life inside the Hells Angels. Thompson rode with the club for a year beginning in the summer of 1965. Credited with creating Gonzo Journalism, Thompson was a freelance writer for many publications, publishers, and news oultets including The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, ESPN2, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and The Review.  His two part, novel length article for Rolling Stone titled Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was made into a film that later became a cult success when it was released to DVD.

 

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