Are you a podiatrist who has loads of discretionary cash to spend on additions to your bike, and enough leftover money to fly your toy around the world? Then go for a BMW adventure bike and recreate a leg of Ewan McGregor's and Charlie Boorman's Long Way Round. Are you a youthful fellow who is into extreme speed, pick up a "crotch rocket." (But please avoid making the rest of us look bad by being a "squid".) Want nostalgia, go for an old Triumph and ride it on the weekends to vintage bike events. Want to tear up dirt roads in the desert, get a dirt bike or enduro. Want to ride to Yellowstone with your lady to celebrate retirement? A Honda Goldwing beckons. Need cheep commuting, you can scour craigslist for a Honda Rebel . But whatever you pick, don't be so naive as to think that your choice doesn't have cultural implications. It says something about you and it is itself an artifact of our cultural values.
Sometimes, I wish it weren't so complicated. For my first bike, I purchased a Japanese Harley Davidson clone. It's a 2003 Suzuki Volusia (I'm riding it through Joshua Tree National Park in the photo above). It has a medium size frame with a mellow engine. It has served me well for thousands of miles, over long stretches of American asphalt. I bought it for $2500 with 11,000 miles on the odometer. And it has caused no problems. Not one. And I need a new bike. I suppose this is because I want one with soul. What kind of soul? More on that later. For now, let's consider the ways in which motorcycles reflect the soul of a culture.
Pictured above is my son, Auggie, working on a Honda CB 350 project. We picked it up for a few hundred bucks as a way to create father-son time and to teach my video game addicted firstborn some handy skills. Since their distribution in the 60s and 70s, little Japanese bikes arguably provided young people in America the same sort of creative outlet that the 59 Club provided for British youth. Though some cafe racer purists assert that only British models can serve as cafe racer platforms, this misses the point entirely. Sure, I'd love to acquire a Norton Commando or well-restored Triumph Bonneville, but those projects require a few thousand dollars to get started. The point of the cafe-racer culture was to make the most of what was on hand. Inexpensive bikes with nearly bullet proof engines and decent performance provided young people with a superb platform for communal wrenching. As for Auggie's bike: we regrettably abandoned the project. We moved to an apartment, losing our garage space. Moreover, we discovered that several little parts, each costing from $30 to $150, started to add up beyond what our modest budget could allow. Fortunately, we were able to sell it to a guy (Chad) who restores and modifies CB 350s exclusively. We'll return to something once Auggie gets a proper car and some safe road experience. When we do, we'll work on something that at least runs and has the right paperwork before we strip it down and invest in stuff like cam chain tensioners and refurbished petcocks.
I resisted the urge to consider the Harley for a long time. First off, why spend $15,000 or more for a bike when my Harley parody is running fine and cost less than three grand? Secondly, as I am turning 40, some models could make me feel or seem too old. Demographically, the high cost of Harleys mean that typical rider is older than 50 (they are the folks who have built up some expendable cash). Forbes warns that despite a great turnaround for the Harley-Davidson corporation in the 1980s, the future is precarious, citing a 30 percent decline in unit sales between 2006 and 2012. It is this span of time, and the implications of the American economy during these years, that caused me to write this blog post in the first place. Motorcycles can't be just for the wealthy and established. But by the economic collapse of 2008, motorcycle style in the Harley world became narcissistic and decadent. As we work through our economic reset in America, this has provided a chance to return to the spirit of motorcycling once again.
According to Jeremiah McWilliams of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the economy has put an end to the chopper boom such that chopper companies like Big Dog, who used to turn out thousands of builds in the early 2000s, produced less than 1000 in 2010 and had to lay off many employees. Perhaps these choppers were missing the point: connection to a workable piece of art that could be ridden by the average person, not decadence is what makes for a good build.
Thus, while most of us have come back down to earth since 2008, the spirit of creativity and ingenuity is perhaps even stronger today than a decade ago. Its just more reasonable. The best evidence for this is anecdotal but illustrative. I recently road my bike to the bank. Outside sat one of the sweetest cafe racers I've ever seen. Once inside the branch, I asked around for the owner of this thing and found Stanley Tang, a bank employee on his day off. I was shocked to find that this stunning machine started out as a stock 1982 Yamaha Virago, a bike that one can find on craigslist.org listed between $500 and $2500. It isn't collectible, and kids don't have posters of Viragos on their walls. But Tang worked a virtual miracle with it (see the video of his build below). Talking with him about his love for the details reminded me about the significance of all this greasy-fingered craftsmanship. Does everything in our lives have to be practical? No. Is there any room for beauty? Yes. It is up to us to roust ourselves and attend to excellence and quality (as Robert Pirsig would say). Even if we don't want the same kind of ride as Tang has, we ought to appreciate and reward such contributions to our overall cultural experience. For Tang, that experience involves (a)vocation coupled with making due with the materials at hand.
What we find in the history of motorcycles and their reflection of our culture is that bikes are better when they have a soul, when they are expressions of artistry, and when we get over our hangups about looking like somebody and instead decide to become our genuine selves. So have at it if you want an ostentatious chopper. Ride your BMW adventure bike into the sunset if it makes you happy. Take a Vespa down to the beach and park it next to a big Harley with pride. Remember that bikes are about freeing the spirit, not confining it to some illegitimately dictated style.
Does that settle my original anxiety about what to buy next? I'm not going to buy into the Harley marketing game right? Wrong. I'm saving up for a Harley Fat Bob. It's got a youthful feel but is big enough for longer rides and is nice and beefy without being an obscene monster. Click on the link above, and you'll see its new khaki paint is just what a professor like me might like. I could still be swayed toward a Triumph of some sort, especially if the cost is right, but for all the hype, there is a reason for Harley Davidson's popularity. It has quality aftermarket parts built by people who love Harleys. It sounds great. If the aesthetic experience is overwhelmingly positive, there's no reason to reject it just to make a pragmatic point. Life is surely more than practical concerns. On top of that, for all the jokes about the mechanical problems of the Harley, it is a well built machine these days, despite the inflated price (think Apple here--a high cost that people who take the plunge don't tend to regret).
In part II, I'll address whether it is virtuous to actually ride motorcycles in the first place, and what to do if a loved one says they plan to ride.